Can Extreme Exercise Be Bad For You?

For the last several years, fitness industry publications have been flirting with the question of whether or not there is such a thing as too much exercise as it pertains to overall health and, in particular, the heart.  This has become a lightening rod issue for an industry that makes its living off of getting people to start exercising and keep exercising.  Particularly in a culture where less than a third of the population meets exercise standards set by the U.S. government.  What has happened in the past is those who have conducted studies that seem to suggest there are diminishing returns when it comes to the relationship between extreme cardiovascular exercise and heart health have been challenged by others in the industry who believe the studies are based on mere anecdotal evidence.  The latter have been winning the argument when measured by what has been written about this topic in mainstream publications over the last two years.  Until now.

The Wall Street Journal which, as recently as January 2012, published a report debunking claims that extreme endurance sports like marathons and triathlons cause heart problems published, “The Exercise Equivalent of Cheeseburgers?” by Kevin Helliker this past Friday.  I won’t reiterate the details of the studies but the conclusion is that, in apparently healthy adults, cardiovascular benefits increase in relation to total weekly distance run until the amount of miles run per week exceeds 30.  In other words, your heart gets healthier and the risk for heart disease lowers the more miles you run per week until the amount reaches 30 miles per week.  The studies seem to indicate that running more than 30 miles per week doesn’t increase the benefits but, rather, increases the risk for developing heart problems.  Another study looked at individuals who already had heart disease.  The results showed that individuals would see improvements in heart health from running until they reached 11.4 miles of running per week.  Any amount above 11.4 miles of running per week worsened the condition and increased mortality risk.

I understand the instinct by fitness professionals to push back.  First, many professionals are extreme endurance exercisers themselves and we are all-in when it comes to exercising for health.  It seems counterintuitive to imagine that any form of exercise could be harmful to anyone much less ourselves.  Second, the health risks of not exercising are well documented and we are a nation of couch potatoes.  Fitness professionals fear that releasing this information prematurely will unnecessarily discourage the sedentary from starting any form of exercise.

I have a slightly different take.  By no means do I believe this issue is settled.  The recent studies are concerning and show a worrisome trend.  Given this, priority needs to be given to conducting more studies, making them more vigorous and in-depth.  In the meantime, we in the industry owe it to all amateur endurance athletes to be honest about scientific studies pertaining to endurance sports.  We want them to be well-informed so that they can make intelligent, thoughtful decisions about their own health.  We should encourage them to review their training regimens with fitness professionals to ensure that they are progressed properly, incorporate enough rest and recovery and include strength and flexibility training in addition to cardio.  We should also encourage them to speak with medical professionals about their concerns.  Their primary care physicians are in the best position to take into consideration their overall health, family medical history along with the latest studies and be able to offer individualized counsel based on those parameters.  They are also in the best position to refer patients to a specialist, such as a cardiologist, if there is concern.

As for the argument that the studies create an excuse for non-exercisers to avoid exercise, I don’t believe that’s reason to suppress what appears to be valid science.  Do you think that sedentary people believe they will ever run a marathon or compete in a triathlon?   Many probably can’t imagine themselves running a mile much less a marathon.  Yes, some may put this on their list of reasons why they don’t need to or shouldn’t exercise.  But, let’s face it, the lists of reasons for why we don’t exercise are incredibly long and this excuse probably goes on the very bottom.  As fitness professionals, it’s our job to convince the sedentary to start moving and to give them the tools to find the motivation within themselves to keep going.  Basically, if a fitness instructor can get a non-exerciser to overcome the top three excuses she has for not exercising, that instructor has a convert.  Publishing a study won’t make a bit of difference for that person.

My philosophy on fitness places a huge emphasis on balance and moderation.  I don’t support the go-big-or-go-home-all-or-nothing attitude towards exercise.  Perhaps it is true that too much exercise is as bad as too little exercise.  But we don’t know for sure – the jury is still out.  So, let’s all take a deep breath, be well informed, be safe, be open minded and know that if our goal remains to nourish ourselves equally mind, body and soul then we’re on the right track.  Pun intended.

One comment

  1. […] contributes to early death in nearly the same numbers as it does for sedentary individuals, other studies have been less alarmist, but still concerning, in their recommendations.  The sweet spot appears […]

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