Today, I ran across a provocative question in the New York Times: Is life expectancy affected if you do “extreme” exercise such as ultra marathons and Ironman races? As you know, exercise has a myriad of benefits, from improvements in cardiovascular health to cancer risk reduction. But what about at the extreme? The short answer is that the data is mixed.
- A 2011 study of male, lifelong competitive endurance athletes age 50 or older found that they had more scarring in their heart muscles than did men of the same age who were active but not competitive athletes. None of the athletes had died young.
- A 2011 study of Tour de France riders, who train ferociously, found that those who had competed between 1930 and 1964 lived, on average, about eight years longer than age-matched men.
Unfortunately, the pool go long-term endurance athletes available for scientific study is small. We do, however, have plentiful data on those of us who exercise more recreationally, if at all.
- A 2012 study presented at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine represents the largest study to date (more than 50000 adults). Participants who ran between 1 and 20 miles per week had almost 20 percent less risk of dying prematurely than those who did not exercise. But those who ran more than 20 miles per week enjoyed no such benefit. They had about the same risk of premature death as those who were sedentary.
Individual genetics and lifestyle factors (such as smoking) can play an outsize role in life span (and quality of life, I might add). Still, I think that if you are aiming to improve life expectancy and long-term cardiovascular health (in addition to other benefits, including a lowering of cancer risk, diabetes, high blood pressure, and maybe even dementia), moderate exercise seems reasonable. For most of us, more may not be more. Of course, before you hit the gym or road, check in with a valued health professional. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter.
Reference: NY Times 11 December 2013
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