In February, scientists with the American Heart Association (AHA) made a major admission about the dangers of high-intensity exercise (or what I call “excess-ercise”).
They admitted that engaging in it could raise your risk of suffering a sudden heart attack or developing a deadly condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib), which can lead to a blood clot or stroke.
Clearly, that’s a big admission for the AHA. But it’s something I’ve been warning about for decades. So, let’s take a closer look at what finally made them change their tune…
More and more isn’t better when it comes to exercise
I’ve been questioning the benefits of excessive exercise since the 1970s. By that point, most Americans had already transitioned from physically demanding work on farms or factories to sedentary work at “desk jobs.”
As a result, some people began to feel the urge to “get physical” (apologies to Olivia Newton-John) by putting themselves through intense workouts in dark, dank gyms. Or by training for and competing in grueling marathons and triathlons.
As for me, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s basic training (which was the equivalent of the 8-week U.S. Marine Corps boot camp) whipped me into shape for the war in Southeast Asia.
I could run a mile in 7 minutes flat—at 7,000-foot altitudes, with full uniform, backpack, and rifle. But it still seemed to me that overexertion stresses the body too hard, for too long.
Looking back now, I think about the story of Philippides, the courier in ancient Greece who inspired modern marathon-running. He ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to report about the great victory over the Persian Army. But what most people don’t know is that Philippides promptly dropped dead from over-exertion right after delivering the news. And that, to me, is the real message of Marathon!
Thankfully, western science is finally beginning to acknowledge the many dangers of pushing the body to the brink, as Philippides did…
Science catches up to common sense
Science clearly shows that excessive exercise raises blood pressure for prolonged periods of time. It also strains the lungs, wears down the muscles and joints, and can even lead to the breakdown of exhausted muscle tissues, releasing byproducts that must be filtered out of the blood by the kidney. (And stressing the kidneys in this way can lead to kidney failure!)
Yet, despite this compelling science, more people than ever are participating in high-intensity exercise, such as marathons, triathlons, and “interval training.” So, the AHA decided to review 300 previously published studies on the topic.
First, they confirmed the heart benefits of moderate exercise. For example, people who engage in regular, light exercise, such as walking, have up to a 50 percent lower risk of heart attack and sudden cardiac death.
They also found potential for great harm if you overdo it. Specifically, they found that first-time triathlon participants make up nearly 40 percent of cardiac events that occur during the event. Therefore, they theorized that inadequate preparation or training may be the cause.
But here’s the problem with that theory…
If 40 percent of cardiac events suffered during triathlons happen to first-time participants, it means that 60 percent—a clear majority—of them happen to repeat participants! So, I guess if you’re fortunate enough to survive your first experience, it’s far from any kind of guarantee you’ll survive all the others!
Overall, if you’re just beginning a new exercise program, use some common sense and make sure to start out slowly. And if you experience any symptoms while exercising, such as chest pressure or pain, or shortness of breath, stop immediately and go see a doctor.
(That’s actually how cardiologists assess your risk of a heart attack anyway. They put you on a treadmill and watch how you tolerate a rigorous workout. If you don’t drop dead of a heart attack, they can conclude that you’re not going to have one…)
Then, even when you get “up to speed,” so to speak, make sure you still use moderation. As I’ve reported before, studies show that you need just 2.5 hours total of exercise per week to improve your health and longevity.
Better yet, exercise outdoors to get the added benefits of sun exposure. In fact, some of my favorite ways to engage in moderate physical activity—especially during summer—are walking, hiking, gardening, and swimming. You can learn more about the benefits of outdoor exercise in the June 2019 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“Your warm-weather guide for safe and effective outdoor exercise”). Not yet a subscriber? Click here now!
“Exercise-Related Acute Cardiovascular Events and Potential Deleterious Adaptations Following Long-Term Exercise Training: Placing the Risks Into Perspective–An Update: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association,” Circulation. 2020;141:e705–e736. doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000749