You’ve probably heard about this already a thousand times as it’s been all over the news in the last couple of days. Extreme exercise may be harmful, in particular it may damage the hearth and trigger rhythm abnormalities. Activities such as marathons, Ironman distance triathlons, and very long distance bicycle races may cause structural changes to the hearth and large arteries, leading to lasting injury.
Researchers of Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City, said that exercise is generally beneficial for health but could tip into becoming harmful when taken to excessive lengths. In particular, they have identified the safe “upper limit” for heart health to be of an hour a day, after which there is little benefit to the individual.
Even though, being an Ironman, this piece of news does not make me happy, all I can say is “What can I do about it?”
Dr O’Keefe, lead author of the study, pointed out that even if physical exercise cannot be considered a drug, it possesses many traits of a powerful pharmacologic agent.
And, as with any drug, a safe upper dose limit potentially exists, beyond which the adverse effects of physical exercise, such as musculoskeletal trauma and cardiovascular stress, may outweigh its benefits.
Dr O’Keefe and colleagues said research suggests that extreme endurance training can cause transient structural cardiovascular changes and elevations of cardiac biomarkers, all of which return to normal within one week.
But for some individuals, over months and years of repetitive injury, this process can lead to the development of patchy scarring of certain areas of the heart, and abnormal heart rhythms.
Endurance sports such as ultramarathon running or professional cycling have been associated with as much as a five-fold increase in the prevalence of atrial fibrillation, or abnormal heart rhythms.
Chronic excessive sustained exercise may also be associated with other heart problems including artery wall stiffening.
Dr O’Keefe said lifelong vigorous exercisers generally have lower death and disability rates compared with non-exercisers, but it was becoming important to detect intense exercisers whose regime might put them at risk.
He also added that ‘Physically active people are much healthier than their sedentary counterparts. Exercise is one of the most important things you need to do on a daily basis. But what this paper points out is that a lot of people do not understand that the lion’s share of health benefits accrue at a relatively modest level. Extreme exercise is not really conducive to great cardiovascular health. Beyond 30-60 minutes per day, you reach a point of diminishing returns’.
My take on the study
Being an endurance extreme athlete I feel personally touched by this study, hence I need to say something about it.
First of all what bothers me a bit is the premise of the study: it seems that the only reason for exercising is to extend life through improving health.
What ever happened to enjoyment, pleasure, fun? Little wonder that most people hate exercise if the only reason for doing so is to live a longer life.
The real reason I do triathlons (run, bike and swim) is because I love the feeling of being out in the water, or on the road: the waves rolling, the winds blowing, the seasons changing, the heart beating, the sweat pouring, the joy of being and moving.
I don't have to drag myself out to do this. Limit myself to 45 minutes because the health benefits are complete? It’s not going to happen.
So am I doomed?
The study hardly suggests it, only that I won't necessarily live longer than those that don't exercise.
But the reason I compete in triathlons/Ironmans isn’t to live longer.
There might be a price for most anyone who seeks high levels of achievement in sports, and I’m willing to pay it.
The Iron You