Does Long Distance Running Cut A Life Short?

NewYorkCityMarathon2005

New York City Marathon, 2005

I don’t know what it is about long distance running, but it seems to cut a life short. Here’s the post about marathon runners having more arterial plaque than a group of their sedentary, matched peers: Study: Marathon Runners Have More Plaque

And here’s an article from this week. It summarizes a presentation given at the American College of Cardiology’s annual conference on Sunday.

Too Much Running Tied to Shorter Life Span, Kathleen Doheny, HealthDay, 1 April 2014

The presentation was “Are Cardiovascular Risk Factors Responsible for the U-Shaped Relationship between Running and Longevity? The MASTERS Athletic Study,” but I had no luck finding it. (Update: Here it is. Thanks, Shaun.)

From HealthDay:

“Recent research suggests there may a point of diminishing returns with running. … People who get either no exercise or high-mileage runners both tend to have shorter lifespans than moderate runners.”

The researchers looked at data from ~3,800 men and women runners, average age 46. (You can add yourself to this database by filling out the online questionnaire here.)

None of the following factors explained the shorter lives of high-mileage runners (more than 20 miles/week):

  • Use of NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs such as ibuprofen/Advil and naproxen/Aleve)
  • Aspirin use
  • Blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Smoking history

Here’s their data and conclusion:

MastersAthleticStudy

Where’s diet? I’d love to see diet’s impact on these numbers.

Dr. James O’Keefe, director of preventive cardiology at the Mid-American Heart Institute in Kansas City (from HealthDay):

“Even though the heart disease risk factors couldn’t explain the shorter longevity of high-mileage runners, there do seem to be potentially life-shortening ill effects from that amount of running.

In O’Keefe’s view, the “sweet spot” for jogging for health benefits is a slow to moderate pace, about two or three times per week, for a total of one to 2.5 hours.

O’Keefe advises runners to avoid strenuous exercise for more than an hour at a time.”

What if, to use him as an example, Jim Fixx quit smoking and took up running at the age of 36, as he did, but just ran about 3 hours a week? No marathons. Would he have lived longer? (Fixx, marathoner and author of the hugely popular The Complete Book of Running (1977), died of a heart attack while running. He was 52.)

5 thoughts on “Does Long Distance Running Cut A Life Short?

  1. Bix Post author

    I think it would be helpful to understand the processes behind this phenomenon, because running may not be sitting alone in a category. That is, what other types of chronic physical exertion affect longevity? How?

    Reply
  2. RB

    Perhaps I need to dial back my running a tad.

    I wonder if this applies to other endurance athletes? Think of Michael Phelps the Olympic swimming champion. He eats 10,000 calories a day (or at least did when he was competing.). Then there are the Tour de France cyclists like Lance Armstrong. Pro-basketball players and football (i.e. soccer) players do a lot of running in their sports in both games and in practice. So is it just runners or all endurance athletes? Could the increase in calories (i.e. food) they need be part of the equation?

    I think runners are easier to study because there are a lot of us that do it our whole lives and can continue to do it into old age.

    The study only covered longevity. The earlier one you mentioned talked arterial plaque buildup. Quality of life and chronic diseases other than heart disease (arterial plaque) aren’t mentioned. Like you said it would be helpful to understand what is behind this phenomenon.

    Running helps keeps me fit which improves my quality of life. I will keep running. I enjoy running.

    Reply
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