Triathlons, ultra-marathons and other types of extreme endurance events are becoming increasingly popular as people test their limits and push themselves in the name of good health. But is extreme exercise actually healthy? As reported in a new study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, physical activity, like so many things in life, is best practiced in moderation.
Exercise is like a powerful drug. It releases powerful mood enhancing chemicals, which can become addicting for some. We all know someone who is addicted to running, biking, pilates, or other type of physical activity. More exercise is better up to a certain dose, but after that, there is a point of diminishing returns, and it may actually detract from heart health and even your longevity.
The research team found that people who exercised on a regular basis benefited significantly and increased their lifespan by an average of seven years over those who didn’t exercise. But when looking at extreme athletes, they discovered that the healthful effects of their exercise not only decreased, but actually turned against them. One culprit may be increased levels of the enzymetroponin. The enzyme is released when the heart muscle is in distress, and during extreme exercise it can climb as heart muscle fibers start to tear under the pressure of constantly pumping at a high level.
The damage doesn’t happen overnight, but over time scar tissue forms on the heart, and endurance athletes end up having thicker right atria and larger right ventricles. A thickened and scarred heart is more susceptible to abnormal heart rhythms. Studies have shown that endurance athletes have a five times higher risk of atrial fibrillation, or fluctuations in the heartbeat that can create greater cardiac risk.
Many cardiac experts believe the best amount of running for increased longevity is about 10 to 15 miles per week. We don't need more heroic exercisers. We need many, many more people doing moderate exercise on a daily basis.