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Get Back On The Treadmill

If you’ve been paying much attention to the news lately, you’ve probably noticed an increasing number of articles popping up that question whether cardiovascular exercise will damage your heart. These stories are in response to studies that appear to show heart damage occurring in veteran marathon runners (you can find two such pieces here and here). Although studies on this subject have been around since the 1970s, the media have become more interested in them since the sudden death of ultrarunner Micah True (the “Caballo Blanco” of Born to Run fame) from heart disease earlier this year.

Since these studies are typically based on extreme endurance athletes, what do they mean for the “average Joe” exercisers of the world? Well, they pretty much don’t mean a thing. According to a study by researchers from the University of South Carolina and the Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, “running lowered the risk for mortality when a person did not exceed more than 20 miles a week, log more than five to seven miles per hour, or run more than two to five times a week.” And even if you do exceed these amounts, it’s only “over months and years” that the activity “may lead to heart damage.” The very important word there is MAY. The idea that cardiovascular exercise = heart disease is outright false.

And yet, you know there are people out there who are taking this idea and running with it (pardon the pun). If you hate to exercise, this is exactly the news you’ve been waiting for. “See? I told you that exercise will kill you!” they proclaim from their couches, fast-food burgers in hand. In a country plagued by obesity and its associated ills (heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc), applying the results of a study based on the 1% of endurance athletes to the 99% of the general population could be dangerous.

Realistically, how many “average Joe” exercisers actually exceed the study’s guidelines? Be honest – when was the last time you ran more than 20 miles in a week? I’m not sure I ever have. And if I did, I certainly didn’t repeat it for the “months and years” it would take to MAYBE damage my heart. So if you’re deciding how to interpret these findings, let me offer my professional opinion:

• This is not an excuse to stop exercising.
• This is not an excuse to keep your kids out of sports.
• Runners (and other exercisers) have fewer heart attacks and live longer than non-runners.
• The dangers of not exercising (including weight gain, muscle loss, loss of function, etc.) are far more likely – in fact, guaranteed – than the possibility you will damage your heart from too much exercise.

Remember, the key to life is balance. Give your body both activity and rest in appropriate amounts, and you’ll reap the best of both worlds. Get back on the treadmill and keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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