Hunting can stop heart in its tracks

Several years ago, Sports Illustrated magazine ran a story about a cross-country runner chasing down a deer in the woods. Speed, strength, instinct, cunning, knowledge of the terrain and endurance, they were all there. Still, the deer finished second best.

For a couple of hours, over hill and dale, through and around thickets and swamps, at a gallop, a sprint and a jog, the creatures matched wills until, finally, the deer stopped one last time in submission. The runner walked up and put his hand on the deer's head. The animal bowed, turned and slowly walked away, turning once to make sure he wasn't being followed.


While it's true that the people greeting the opening of the two-week deer-hunting season next month don't have to be in the kind of condition it took for the runner to accomplish his objective, it's certain that a majority of them could be in a lot better shape.

Quickie fact, courtesy of Dr. Barry Franklin, director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Laboratories at the Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.: Hunters die from heart attacks three times as often as from firearms accidents.


Think about it. In today's sedentary society, with riding lawn mowers and guys standing by the side of a highway waiting for someone to come change their flat tires, a journey into the woods to challenge the elusive whitetail probably constitutes the most exercise and exertion some men will realize all year.

It is estimated that hunters may carry loads of up to 50 pounds when everything is considered: heavy clothing, boots, a firearm, other equipment, a lunch and thermos, etc. And, as a veteran woodsman points out, a majority do their hunting from tree stands. Collapsible metal stands start out light, but have a way of becoming heavy, especially considering the terrain being traversed.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving (opening day of the season) usually has a way of coming up brisk, especially a couple of hours before the sun comes up. What is comfortable for a hunter standing along a dirt road three miles from the nearest telephone pole quickly becomes uncomfortable when he goes off-road and the trek into the woods begins.

Cold soon gives way to sweat and huffing and puffing as one encounters gullies, ravines, huge stones, cliffs and other obstacles rarely found on streets and parade grounds. On the Eastern Shore, it's the swamps; in the western part of the state, it's the hills and rocks.

Then, after an early rise, a huge breakfast and a march into the woods under a 50-pound load, the hunter arrives at his destination, where the workload often accelerates. When's the last time you climbed a tree -- 15, 20, 30 years ago?

Stands are usually situated 20 to 25 feet up a tree and it's no simple task getting oneself up the tree and situated with all the gear in place. It's no wonder so many hunters are hurt seriously by falling out of trees due to rickety stands, dozing off or inept climbing technique.

According to Bill Burton, retired outdoors editor of The Sun, it was nearly 30 years from 1931, when deer-hunting season was established in Maryland, before the first recorded hunter/firearms fatality occurred in the state.

"And over the last three decades, with about 100,000 hunters in the woods each fall, we've averaged about one fatality per year," he adds.


Franklin, the cardiac specialist, says: "When sedentary hunters go out once a year and, after unusual exertion, spot a deer, their heart rate and blood pressure can suddenly soar. This can lead to chest pains, heart rhythm irregularity or sudden cardiac death."

As Burton points out, "About 90 percent of the deer taken are in the most inaccessible spots you can find. A hunter is usually alone and now he has to drag [the deer] out to a pickup spot. A 150-pound buck with antlers is tough enough because there's nothing to hold onto for leverage; a doe or an antlerless buck is even worse." Such exertion outdoes even that expended getting into the woods and set up in the first place.

"Most hunters probably don't realize how much ground they cover during a day in the woods," Burton adds.

Basically, what the usually sedentary or aging hunter has to do to prepare for the deer season is improve his all-around aerobic fitness -- that is, exercising to increase the efficiency of oxygen intake by the body.

"Some kind of walking program, that's all it takes," says Dr. Larry Stafford, a Catonsville cardiologist and avid deer hunter. "The profile of the deer hunter is that of a cigarette-smoking, alcohol-guzzling, bacon-and-eggs chomping overweight guy who stays up all night. This is no doubt true in a lot of cases, so it makes sense to do something about it."

Plain old walking or hiking is often thought of as useless or a waste of time to many, but studies show that they offer a combination of physical and psychological benefits. While aerobic fitness is improving, the activity has a simultaneous calming and invigorating effect while building muscle, burning calories and boosting levels of the "good" HDL cholesterol.


"Start out with a simple walk of 30 or 40 minutes in the morning or evening, then do both if you can work it in. Increase the pace and distance. Improving your cardiovascular fitness will do wonders when you suddenly run into the hill on opening day of the season.

"Of course, a smoker should cut down if not stop altogether," he cautions. "Smoking robs the body of oxygen. Aerobic exercise is elevating the heart rate not a great deal, not straining, until you can handle it. Walking up a flight of stairs should increase your heart rate 10 beats per minute, not 40. Increasing the pace and distance at least three or four times a week for a month or six weeks makes for muscle and a guy should have no problem."

In the last couple of years alone, Stafford says, "I've had a dozen to 20 referrals of people suffering heart problems while in the woods, and we're in the city. I can imagine what's it's like at doctors' offices and in hospitals out in the country."

He tells the story of a hunter in the Pocomoke State Forest down on the lower end of the Eastern Shore who, while dragging his quarry out of the woods, felt chest pains. "He did the right thing: He lay down. He was alone and he just laid there all night. ... It probably saved his life. I've seen a bunch of cases like that."

Two other suggestions the doctor makes as D-day approaches is "don't go into the woods and fields directly from the tavern, and forgo that greasy, fat-filled breakfast. If you're in rotten shape, don't compound the problem. One thing to remember is deer never run toward the road, they run away and it is hell dragging those critters a couple of miles.

"It goes without saying that everyone should heed the warning signs of a problem, things like shortness of breath, pain in the central chest area, numbness in the shoulders and arms. If that happens, back off and sit down. Even if there's no problem, remember, there's no rush, take the deer slowly."


Of course, there are other cautions to observe, too.

One of Stafford's favorite stories involves a scene he happened upon a few seasons ago in Frederick County: "I'm at the top of a hill and looking down and see a deer sort of bouncing along in a manner I had never seen before. I said, 'What's going on?' I put the scope on and there's a hunter with a deer perched on his back stumbling along out of the woods. The deer covered just about all the orange on the hunter's jacket.

"Stupidest thing I ever saw. It really wouldn't have mattered what kind of shape the guy was in if a trigger-happy hunter had happened upon the scene."

Pub Date: 10/28/97