Endurance Athletes and Longevity
Can a marathon or triathlon shorten your life?
Exercise helps people live longer. That's been common knowledge for decades. But just how much is good, and at what point would it become a problem?
In a 2011 paper, researchers claimed Tour de France cyclists added 8 years to their life span because of their extreme endurance training. In that study, researchers looked at the "longevity of 834 cyclists... who rode the Tour de France between the years 1930 and 1964. Dates of birth and death of the cyclists were obtained on December 31(st) 2007."
The Tour de France researchers figured out the average lifespan for the cyclists and compared them to the general populations of France, Italy and Belgium. They calculated half the general population died at an average age of 73.5 versus 81.5 for the Tour de France participants. That means extreme cycling must have helped them live longer, right?
No. The researchers forgot a few crucial things. The time period they chose included World War II, one of the most devastating wars in human history. Average people were far more likely to face life-threatening combat than athletes competing in the Tour de France. Combat tends to reduce life expectancy, but that was never adjusted for in the results.
The elite athletes also had access to better medical care and were paid more than the average citizen. Good doctors and money are both things that have been shown to significantly increase lifespan. Those things were also never adjusted for in the results.
Plus, the study was limited to 834 cyclists.
To get a better idea of the effects of training on longevity, Dr. James O'Keefe Jr., director of the Preventive Cardiology Fellowship Program at the St. Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, analyzed the running habits of over 50,000 adults.
In a study presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, Dr. O'Keefe showed that people who ran between 1 and 20 miles a week were almost 20 percent LESS likely to die prematurely than subjects who didn't exercise. That was expected.
The surprise came when he looked at people who ran more than 20 miles a week. It turns out, their risk of premature death was about the same as people who didn't exercise at all. Running more than 20 miles a week actually erased any exercise advantage.
To understand what's happening, doctors have been looking at changes that occur when people engage in extreme events. What they found is that the strain of something like a marathon, can cause inflammation and actually damage the right ventricle of the heart.
Fortunately, the damage generally isn't permanent. It appears to heal after 90 days of moderate activity.
The biggest problem seems to be with endurance athletes who repeatedly engage in extreme events, without giving their bodies proper time to recover. Runners who competed in three, four or more marathons a year don't have enough time between races to fully heal.
Some researchers believe it's not just the exercise, but the diet of extreme athletes that's the problem. Most endurance athletes consume high levels of sugar to sustain their efforts. When we eat sugar, our bodies convert it into glucose for energy. In lab studies on worms and yeasts, glucose speeds up the aging process and may reduce lifespan by as much as 20%. Research is still in the early stages, but that may be one of the things hurting endurance athletes.
You can get too much of a good thing. I'm not suggesting that you never run a marathon. It's an amazing accomplishment that can be extraordinarily fulfilling. But I am suggesting you might not want to do it that often. Based on what doctors are finding, that may mean limiting yourself to no more than a single event each year, if health and longevity are your primary considerations.
Exercising to live longer and feel better is a great idea. For best results, keep the running under 20 miles a week.
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