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Exercising too hard

There is no question that getting sufficient exercise is important for health. I guess I don’t do as much as I should but I do have a few 20 minute walks each day and play golf 2-3 times each week which involves over 10,000+ steps per game on a 6000+ metre course. I don’t go to the gym but I do some stretching exercises most days.

I do wonder if moderate exercise isn’t more sensible for almost all of us – perhaps all – than running marathons and engaging in similar high physical stress activities. There is some  evidence that extreme physical stress damages the right side of the heart – the part that pumps blood to the lungs.   The desire to push things seems to be part of the modern mania to push things to extremes. It is also inadvertently masochistic – the underlying idea is that if it hurts its got to be good for you. Rubbish, it probably just damages you.

14 comments to Exercising too hard

  • conrad

    You’re wrong on that one. The main evidence now points to:
    a) You need to exercizehard regularily (i.e., do intervals) to maintain you’re cardiovascular output (i.e., VO2 max). Walking won’t do that (try non-impact excersizes — these are usually far easier for people than running).
    b) More recently, there are studies that show that most of the deteriation in muscle mass (c.f., contractibility) in old age is probably due to atrophy due to lack of use and not aging.
    c) At least for (a), you probably need to do this your whole life as starting in old age won’t necessarily reverse the process
    d) It’s currently not clear if the same is true for (b), but it could be.
    e) There are studies on retired top level endurance athletes, and there is some evidence they have some pathological changes to their hearts, but these are probably harmless, as they tend to live longer if they keep on excersizing and die off at a similar rate if they don’t.

    If you’re desperate to get the facts on this, I have references hanging around, although (a) is so well known now it will be all over the place including popular sports sites with easy write-ups. (b) is much newer.

  • andrewt

    There study was of 26 athletes doing an Ironman which is 4km swim, 180km bike, 42km run which would have take most of them 10+ hours. They’d have trained 20 hours/week for many months.

    The authors conclude “Although these changes have been shown to resolve within 1 week, there remains the possibility that the process of repair may result in chronic subclinical myocardial fibrosis with a risk of resultant complications. ”

    Its not conclusive but it does raise a concern if you do repeated endurance events – I do a couple of endurance events a year – but because they are mostly less than half the time of ironman – I’m not even sure I should worry. For the vast bulk of the population it has no relevance at all.

    For a large part of the population there is good evidence more exercise would have significant health benefits. This is very limited evidence that a tiny subgroup might be better off doing less endurance events.

  • fxh


  • Rafe

    Regular exercise sounds good to me. Include a bit of exertion in moderation. Desk workers need to do some regular back flexing and twisting. As for the heavy running, especially on pavements, add to the list of hazards the damage to joints.

  • hc

    Very droll FXH.

  • andrewt

    There is a longitudinal study of 1000+ runners over 2 decades out of Stanford which found no link between running and damage to knees. Other studies suggest running may leasd to less joint problems in later life.

  • hc

    I did cross country running for 8 years while I lived in Thailand. My knees are in bad shape – eventually I will need knee reconstructions. I cannot believe that running – at least on hard surfaces – does not damage knees.

  • fxh

    Running is bad news for knees.

    Weight bearing exercise plus aerobic is good at all ages.

    Harry I cant believe there isn’t a bunch of economists, fully tenured on great super, who have labored (well at least got their grad students to do it) for years, ignoring other evidence, and come up with a startling NEW finding that most exercise is good.

  • conrad

    Andrew — I was a competitive runner for years and I’m aware of this literature. There is a big confound in it — most people that run for years have good biomechanics, and so not surprisingly don’t end up with knee etc. problems. People who have poor biomechanics get injured all the time and drop out and obviously can’t participate in the “running” group in these studies.

    Given that most of the studies find no difference, my suspicion is that there probably is a minor effect since the people that run all the time have apriori good biomechanics and thus, in general, should have less overall knee problems. That being said, it’s sure to be the case it’s still healthier to run than not if you have good biomechanics.

  • davidp

    My experience is consistent with there is a substantial difference in fitness between walking and running even shortish distances (5km) regularly as my fitness and general health improved when I went from regularly power walking to running (doing street orienteering). Have had injuries along the way but these have generally been overcome – it is a long way from marathon/iron man events…

  • andrewt

    Conrad, this sort of study is necessarily observational – it is not practical to randomly assign a large group to either 2 decades of running or 2 sedentary decades of then compare their joints.

    But the Stanford group included an epidemiologist & a biostatistician – they weren’t amateurs – and they did look at people who stopped running during the period and they did attempt to make comparisons to as a similar as possible segment of the general population.

    It is also plausible there a u-shaped curve with say 30km/week running producing benefits on average for people’s knees and at 100 km/week costs out-weigh benefits on average – but you’d need a lot more data.

    Harry, argument from personal incredulity is very weak – you are sounding like a climate change “skeptic”.

    Of course you in your particular case its quite possible even a small amount of running would damage your knees – stationary bike might be a way to add a bit of higher intensity exercise to your week.

  • hc

    Fair comment Andrew but the ageing joggers I speak to make similar observations. Of course if you are even a bit overweight you do much more damage to your knees. All in all I jogged from 1975-1987 but the damage was not experienced until around 2000. I have thought about a bike or swimming.

  • ken n

    Excuses excuses. I know of only one friend forced to give up running because of injury. I know several who gave it up because they read an article about the risk of injury or were told something by someone in a pub.
    I do it because I enjoy it. If I stopped enjoying it I would stop doing it.
    Try long distance bike touring hc. Great fun. 1000k in 3 weeks means a lot of exercise and a lot of discovery.

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