Hailey Middlebrook: Running the risk of too much exercise

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 5:53pm

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article with the headline “The Potential Cardiac Dangers of Extreme Exercise,” which stopped the hearts of every athlete reading the page. The article describes findings from a British study presented to the European Society of Cardiology last August, which tested 169 veteran competitive endurance athletes against a control group of 171 relatively sedentary adults, both free from cardiovascular risk factors, to highlight how exercise benefits (or harms) our hearts.

Indeed, their results supported our “Let’s Move!” mentality: Compared to sedentary adults, committed athletes who ran a maximum of 35 miles a week had lower levels of coronary artery calcium — the plaque that blocks arteries — and were less likely to suffer from heart attacks and strokes.

But when athletes ran over 35 miles per week, something weird happened. “Athletes who ran or cycled beyond that threshold were found to harbor higher levels of coronary artery calcium than did the control group,” the article said. Basically, a dedicated runner who logged 50 miles a week had the same — or worse — heart health than a couch potato.

Not so fast. There was another factor tested in the study: the intensity of exercise. Results found that the slowest men and women had significantly lower levels of plaque than the sedentary group, which is consistent with the American Heart Association’s statement: “Walking briskly can lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes as much as running.” Subjects who regularly walked or jogged had healthier hearts than those who didn’t. Athletes who trained at higher intensities, however, had more ominous results. As women’s training speed increased, their plaque levels rose; still, they remained healthier than the sedentary group.

But the men who exercised the most at the highest intensities  — think marathon studs like 2014 Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi — lit up with red flags. Their levels of plaque, results showed, were significantly higher than sedentary men. Why? Doctors cite “inflammation, changes in the structure of the heart or an excess secretion of certain proteins or hormones,” as potential causes.

The findings are unsettling, especially as a committed distance runner with a family history of heart problems. It makes me question my own father’s cardiac incident, almost 30 years ago. A former varsity cross country runner at Albion College, my father had a sudden heart attack at 26 years old. He was young and physically fit, fresh out of law school, filling up his gas tank when it happened. He drove himself to the closest hospital, hand clamped to his chest — he said the pain was excruciating, but he’d run enough painful races to not be too alarmed.

His doctors blamed genetics and diet: his mother had cardiovascular problems; he’d eaten too many Big Macs. It was the early ’90s, the era of Jane Fonda fitness tapes and jogging, athletes buoyed by the running boom of the ’70s. Getting too much exercise was never a concern. Should they have worried then?

Maybe now, instead of warning against over-exercising, researchers should consider: What makes endurance athletes go the distances they do, if not for health reasons?

School of Nursing Junior Alex Fauer, President of the U-M Triathlon Club, has completed the holy grail of endurance competitions — an Ironman Triathlon, which begins with a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and finishes with 26.2-mile run (i.e. marathon). The races typically start at 7 a.m. and pack up at midnight, leaving participants 17 hours to finish 140.6 miles. It’s one of the longest, most grueling physical tests on the planet — one that even seasoned marathoners are wary of, for its brutal toll on the body.

I asked Fauer his opinion on potential health risks of too much exercise.

“The risk of fatigue from overtraining and overuse injuries are already on athletes’ radars. So where do we go from this?” Fauer said. “Are these athletes safe? I think before athletes are scared and stop training, they should consider their current health and talk with physicians about monitoring the possibility of illness.”

He continued, “Personally, I think if an athlete has a passion for long distance training, he should embark on whatever journey that he feels he can achieve. I used this philosophy to motivate my training for my first Ironman last August.”

What the study doesn’t show: the cost of restricting passion. On principle, I ignore people who tell me what I love is unhealthy. In the words of Jonathan Beverly, editor in chief of Running Times Magazine, “Whether or not running extends your life is irrelevant. We run not because it might make life longer, but because it makes life better — because we love how it makes us feel. And because we love it, we do it as much as our bodies allow. Forget moderation.”

Do I think running a steady 50 miles per week makes me healthier than someone who jogs an easy 20? No.

Am I a better person because I run? Yes, absolutely. I feel more alive, accomplished, sound in my mind and body when I go far and fast. And if something must take a toll on my health, I want my vice to be miles.