Slow and steady does win the race

Last week, I told you about the major health benefits of light physical activity. It clearly boosts longevity. In fact, men and women who start out as “couch potatoes,” but begin to get light, daily exercise experience the biggest boost in longevity. Any “extra” exercise beyond that amount is just “gravy,” so to speak.

Plus, as I’ve always warned, there is such a thing as too much exercise! In fact, more research now shows “intense” exercise can harm your health. And it can even lead to earlier death.

This news comes as a shock to many people. Especially those who have been brainwashed by the so-called “fitness gurus” out there.

But it’s actually not so hard to understand, if you apply some common sense.

You see, extreme exercise puts heavy wear and tear on your joints. It also puts unreasonable strains on your muscles–including your heart muscle. And two brand-new studies show just how easy it can be to “over-do” it…

In the first study, published in the respected medical journal Heart, researchers followed 44,410 Swedish men ages 45 to 79 years. At the study’s outset, they assessed the amount of time the men spent exercising at 15, 30 and 50 years of age. Then, researchers followed the men over the ensuing 12 years.

They found that men who exercised more than five hours per week at age 30 had almost a 20 percent increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart beats) compared to men who exercised less than one hour per week.

(Atrial fibrillation means you have an abnormal heartbeat. It can lead to the formation of blood clots and pulmonary embolism. If left untreated, the heart may stop pumping blood effectively. Or it can even stop beating altogether.)

The increased risk persisted whether or not the men continued to exercise beyond their 30s. However, men who exercised more at age 30, but then later quit, had the greatest increase in risk. They had a 49 percent higher risk compared to those who exercised less at age 30, and later quit. So engaging in extreme exercise is like getting “stuck on a treadmill,” perhaps literally, that you can never get off. Your choices are high risks if you keep going but even higher risks if you stop all together!

This study also reminded me of another Swedish study, which I told you about last year. In that study, researchers followed young male athletes who participated in Vasaloppet, the grueling cross-country ski marathon in Sweden. It is a Nordic equivalent of an Ironman or double marathon, roughly.

Not only is the race itself grueling, the training is just as difficult. Nearly 80 percent of Vasaloppet finishers participate in intense training all year round. In fact, athletes MUST train year-round to achieve the extreme aerobic capacity required to finish such an event.

At the study’s outset, the athletes were 38 years old on average. And just about any doctor would have said these athletes were in top physical condition. But when the men reached their 50s, they had double the rate of atrial fibrillation.

The second new study recently published in Heart also illustrates the dangers of high-intensity work-outs.

For this study, researchers examined the impact of frequent and intense physical activity on 1,038 participants with coronary heart disease. They defined intense physical activity as exercising at least five to six times per week.

Some men and women in the study engaged in intense physical activity at the study’s outset and then decreased their activity level over the 10-year follow-up period. Other men and women exercised just two to four times a week at the study’s outset. And their activity remained constant during the 10-year follow-up. The third group of men and women remained inactive throughout the entire study.

Of course, the researchers found that inactive men and women experienced an increase in adverse heart events as they got older. But the researchers’ other findings might surprise you…

First, men and women who participated in physical activity every day in their younger years and then stopped had an increased risk of dying of an acute cardiac event. However, men and women who exercised just two to four times per week and remained consistent had the lowest risk.

These findings lead me to two conclusions…

First, your body needs a day of rest in between exertions. Your muscles need a break. Especially your heart muscle. You see, your heart has a nerve conduction system. And each cell of the heart muscle responds to electrical activity by regularly contracting and relaxing to create a coordinated heartbeat.

But excess physical strain on the heart appears to lead to abnormalities over the long term. It can interfere with normal operation of the heart’s nerves and muscle cells, leading to abnormal electrical activity such as atrial fibrillation.

Second, don’t start something you can’t finish. These studies show it’s even worse to engage in regular, intense physical activity and then stop, than it is to follow a more sensible and consistent regimen of less intense physical activity.

So, whatever exercise you do, remember to practice moderation and common sense. You definitely shouldn’t strive to be a marathon runner if you want to live longer. In fact, as this new research shows, you don’t even have to work out for hours in a gym every day. Slow, steady, and consistent wins the race against early disability and death.


1. “Atrial fibrillation is associated with different levels of physical activity levels at different ages in men,” Heart, published online May 14, 2014

2.  “A reverse J-shaped association of leisure time physical activity with prognosis in patients with stable coronary heart disease: evidence from a large cohort with repeated measurements,” Heart, published online May 14, 2014