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Extreme Exercise

Extreme Exercise

Just the excuse you’ve been waiting for…research has found that running a marathon may actually be bad for your health.

We’re so used to be being told that exercise is good for us that it may come as a surprise to hear that there is research out there that has shown that running a marathon or doing any extreme, long distance endurance exercise such as iron man triathlons can actually cause permanent damage to the heart. The Mayo Clinic in the USA claims that putting your body through strenuous exercise activities such as endurance cycling, running or swimming may permanently damage the heart and arteries by causing unnatural structural change. It may also put you at increased risk of a heart attack for up to two years following the event.

Not all athletes will suffer damage but those that do – estimated to be 10% of all marathon runners - will have caused scarring on their heart, it is claimed. Dr James O’Keefe of Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas, the main author of the report published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal , stated: “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”.

In addition to scarring, athletes can also suffer changes in the rhythm of their heart which makes them more susceptible to heart attack. Atrial fibrillation, heart rhythm changes, is thought to be five times more likely to occur in endurance athletes. The heart isn’t the only part of the body to suffer under extreme exercise conditions. Surgery is common among men and women who frequently run and play sports such as tennis into their 40s and 50s as they often suffer knee problems by wearing out their joints. 

This may all come as a bit of a surprise to most of us. After all, aren’t we used to hearing nothing but how much exercise benefits us? Or perhaps, like me, it’s music to your ears as you now have the perfect excuse to avoid doing something utterly insane and signing up to the London marathon (something I’ve felt marginally obligated to do in the past but always managed to avoid). I’ve always suspected doing that much exercise in one go cannot be good for you. The fact that the first person to run a marathon distance dropped down dead when he finished says it all if you ask me. He was a Greek soldier, too, therefore likely to be a hell of a lot fitter than I ever will be, thanks to my car, the proximity of available food sources and the postal system. And the fact that I am not a soldier, of course.

Let us not forget, though, that a certain amount of daily exercise has numerous health benefits. This we know for certain. It protects against obesity, hypertension, many diseases including cancer and heart disease. Exercise is extremely important for all of us if we want to be healthy, both mentally and physically.

So how much exercise should we be doing before we reach the point of doing too much? Well, according to Dr O’Keefe, beyond 30-60 minutes per day, you reach a point of “diminishing returns”. And what of people who do want to run a marathon, or complete an iron man challenge? Should they decide against it due to this research? Well, it depends on what you chose to believe. Because another study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, claims that, even as the participation rate in marathons has roughly doubled in the last ten years, the death rate remains unchanged. They also found that the death rate was very low, amounting to roughly one death per 100,000 athletes.  Which surely suggests that, on the whole, endurance running is perfectly safe for the vast majority of us?