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Too Much Exercise Can Damage Your Heart

Most people either under-do exercise or over-do it. The downsides of under-doing it are obvious and well-publicized, but the downsides of over-doing it are not obvious and are not common knowledge. But if you care about your health, you need to know about it.

Not long ago, researchers studied the heart health of a group of very fit older athletes – men who had been part of a national or Olympic team in distance running or rowing, and runners who had completed at least a hundred marathons. The results were unsettling – half of these lifelong athletes showed evidence of heart muscle scarring. The affected men were invariably the ones who had gone through the longest, hardest training.

Other studies have been done that provide solid evidence of a direct link between certain kinds of prolonged exercise and heart damage – scarring and structural changes, similar to those seen in the human endurance athletes. The research effectively shows that years of strenuous cardiovascular exercise can damage your heart.

The vast majority of those who exercise choose to do some form or "aerobic" or "cardio" activity. This research now supports the position that this choice is likely not to be in your best interest in the long term, and that it is possible to do "too much" exercise.

By focusing on extreme examples we can begin to see some of the truth when it comes to exercise. These studies help explain why well-trained professional athletes can suddenly die from heart failure. For example, in 2007, one of the best American marathon runners ever, Alberto Salazer, nearly died from a heart attack at the age of 49.

This is a powerful lesson to anyone who engages in large amounts of "cardio" exercise, because as it turns out, conventional "cardio" may actually be counterproductive... So, although most people who read this are probably not exercising nearly enough, it's still important to understand that it is indeed possible to over-exercise – especially if your primary focus is on traditional "cardio".

Research emerging over the past several years has now given us a whole new understanding of what your body requires in terms of exercise, and many of our past notions have been turned upside-down (but "common knowledge" is very resilient).

In the study mentioned above, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers recruited a group of extremely fit older men. All of them were members of the 100 Marathon club, meaning athletes who had completed a minimum of 100 marathons. Their ages ranged from 26 to 67, and all of them had trained vigorously throughout adulthood. The control group consisted of 20 healthy men over 50, but none of them were endurance athletes.

The New York Times reported that:

"The different groups underwent a new type of magnetic resonance imaging of their hearts that identifies very early signs of fibrosis, or scarring, within the heart muscle. Fibrosis, if it becomes severe, can lead to stiffening or thickening of portions of the heart, which can contribute to irregular heart function and, eventually, heart failure. The results, published online… in The Journal of Applied Physiology, were rather disquieting.

None of the younger athletes or the older non-athletes had fibrosis in their hearts. But half of the older lifelong athletes showed some heart muscle scarring. The affected men were, in each case, those who'd trained the longest and hardest. Spending more years exercising strenuously or completing more marathon or ultramarathon races was, in this study, associated with a greater likelihood of heart damage."

Still, there were questions about whether the extreme training itself had caused the heart damage. Additional answers were found in another study which, according to The New York Times, "provides the first solid evidence of a direct link between certain kinds of prolonged exercise and heart damage."

The point is, too much of something that is normally good for you can have the reverse effect. Just as you can get too much water, too much fat, too much calories, and too much sun, you can also get too much exercise. But although the effects of too much sun are easy to see, the effects of too much exercise can't be as easily noticed, and in fact some effects of over-doing it are often seen as an example of being in great shape (a very muscular person who is, in reality, too muscular).

The other downsides

It should be noted that over-exercise does not just have the potential to negatively impact the heart. Because of over-doing it, if your antioxidant threshold* is exceeded or micronutrients are consumed at a level that cannot be easily replaced, and on top of this if you don't get adequate amounts of sleep and/or you exercise hard again too soon, both handicapping "recovery", cancer may be the result of this "perfect storm". And let's not forget about the potential for joint damage over time.

When thinking about exercise, think about the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears... you want the porridge that is "just right".

A more prudent approach

When thinking about running, let's not support the notion based on the fact that at one time humans did a lot of running in order to wear out an animal they were chasing; when humans were hunter-gatherers. But what about before then? What about when humans were just foragers, as are all other primates? No need to chase down the foods we were designed to eat then (fruits), which, by-the-way, are the same foods we're still designed to eat. When we ran way back then, it was to escape danger; to try and not become a predator's meal. And this form of running is called sprinting, which is not done for miles on end.

And even if you do "run" as an activity, how long should you run for? Do you do it for a set number of minutes or miles? If so, this does not respect what your body may want. How about running and listening to your body, and stopping when it wants you to stop. When this has been suggested to avid runners, some reply, "I won't run that way... I'd be hearing "stop" way before I want to stop." But isn't that the point? If we eat what we want to eat, and sleep for as long as we decide to sleep, this usually doesn't square with what the body wants. And anything that doesn't jibe with the body's desires is a contributing factor to degenerative disease.

So if your body only wants you running for five minutes, let it be so. Yes, you'll not feel a "runner's high", but that high goes hand-in-hand with damage to soft tissue.

And what about how you land when you run? Landing on your heels takes your calf muscles' ability to provide shock absorption out of the picture. But if you land on your forefoot as you would if you were running in place the impact to your joints will be far less. True, when running so that you land on your forefoot, your strides will be shorter than if you landed on your heels, so you won't be running as fast, but so what? You're not in a race (something else the body doesn't care for).

And how about the notion of going out of your way to find some grass to run on, instead of an unyielding surface such as concrete or blacktop/asphalt. All these tips will go a long way towards protecting the only body you will have in this lifetime.


* At a certain point phytonutrients reach a point of diminishing returns with increased amounts, so if you require more antioxidants, simply consuming more doesn't help.

Also read:

Can You Over-Exercise?

Fact or Fiction: "To keep fit, exercise 30 minutes a day, 3 to 5 times a week."

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