When James Fixx died at the age of 52 on July 20th, 1984, in the middle of his daily run, it was a huge shock to runners, athletes and fitness buffs. When Fixx was 35 he weighed 240 pounds and smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day. He was about as fit as a potato.
A decade later he was the poster child for fitness. He had lost 60 pounds, had stopped smoking and his book, The Complete Book of Running, was an internationally acclaimed million-copy best seller. James Fixx had become a long-distance runner and a role model for people who wanted to get serious about exercise and improve their health. That’s why his death came as such a shock. Someone who had turned his life around so completely with a healthy lifestyle should have been able to dodge a deadly heart attack.
Experts tried to explain away the premature death on genetic grounds (Fixx’s father had a heart attack and died when he was 43). Then there was the history of smoking and the overweight problem. What no one ever considered was running itself.
It will come as a huge shock to most people to learn that marathon runners may actually have more heart problems than less intense exercisers or perhaps even people who have a sedentary life style. A fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Why You Shouldn’t Eat and Run” summed up a recent study:
“A study published in the current edition of Missouri Medicine found that 50 men who had run at least one marathon a year for 25 years had higher levels of coronary-artery plaque than a control group of sedentary men.”
A recent study in BMJ analyzed the risk of atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries of 42 Boston marathoners. The researchers compared the thickness of the arteries in their necks with those of their less athletic spouses. The results were surprising:
“This study was, to our knowledge, the first to assess cardiovascular risk biomarkers in trained runners versus their domestic partners to minimise the influence of lifestyle differences on the effects of chronic, high-intensity exercise. Many aspects of the cardiovascular profile were better in runners versus controls, and age and Framingham risk scores were directly related to cIMT [carotid intima-medial thickness], but cIMT did not differ between runners and controls. These results suggest that chronic endurance training improves cardiovascular risk parameters, but does not retard the progression of carotid atherosclerosis.”
Clearly, running a marathon does improve cardiovascular fitness. Surprisingly, it does not seem to have an impact on atherosclerosis or clogging of arteries. The Wall Street Journal sums up the research thusly:
“A small body of research suggests that heart problems may arise not in spite of extreme-endurance exercise but because of it. That has led some cardiologists to theorize that, beyond a certain point, exercise stops preventing and starts causing heart disease.”
What is the take home message? Please do NOT use this preliminary data to discourage you from exercising. Clearly, moving your body is good for your heart, your brain and just about every cell in your body. But do not expect intense exercise such as marathons or triathlons to protect your arteries or help you avoid a heart attack. Moderation in all things, including exercise, may be the key to optimum health.
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