Can too Much Exercise Kill You?

I recently finished reading a book entitled The Haywire Heart, written by Lennard Zinn, a former member of the US national cycling team, Dr. John Mandrola, and Christopher Case. Those of you who read VeloNews may have seen advertisements for the book, as Velo Press is the publisher. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased and downloaded from Amazon. The information in the book is of special interest to the aging athlete, eg. anyone over 50 who carries exercise to an extreme.

The book argues that exercise is beneficial to health and longevity up to a point. If exercise is increased beyond that point, health deteriorates. Exercise hard enough, and you are unlikely to outlive someone who spends most of the day sitting in front of the TV eating potato chips.

The book is backed by studies. According to a New York Times article published in 2103, Tour de France cyclists in one study lived an average of eight years longer than sedentary men. However, as we know, when pro cyclists retire, they may keep cycling, but they no longer have a reason to do the extreme training. In other words, they back off on their training when they are still young enough for their bodies to repair the heart damage done by racing.

The Times article also reports a study of 50,000 adults that showed that runners who ran between 1 and 20 miles a week had a 20-percent lower chance of dying prematurely. However, those who ran more than 20 miles a week had the same risk of premature death as their sedentary contemporaries.

You can read the Times article by clicking here. Another article of the subject of the negative effects of overdoing exercise and be read on Health and Wellness by clicking here. (You have to enter some sort of email address into the popup box and click the highlighted buttons to read the article.)

According to the Health and Wellness article, “Studies suggest about one-third of marathon runners develop signs of heart stress immediately after a race, such as elevated troponin levels or enlarged heart chambers on imaging tests.” The older we get, the more downtime we require to recover and for our bodies to repair the heart damage, which can include micro-tears.

I have premature ventricular contractions (PVCs, which feel like skipped heart beats). The cardiologist calls them “benign,” but now I am wondering if they will remain benign if I keep on pushing. Until I read this book, my only complaint was that the PVCs slow me down, especially on climbs. My instinct was to push through them by doing more interval training. After reading this book, I am going to back off on the hard efforts. I’m still going to enjoy group bike rides, but I’m going to limit the time I spend pushing hard.

As you can see from one of my book advertisements in the left sidebar, I backpacked more than 400 miles two summers ago on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Was that smart? From now on, my hiking trips will be shorter.

A related anecdote: just over a year ago, an 80-year-old bike racer named Dave Deichman from Tucson, Arizona won the McDowell Mountain circuit race in his age group. Our bike racing team put on the race, and I presented Dave with his trophy. He appeared in excellent health and was overjoyed to receive the prize. A few days later, I heard that he had passed away from a heart attack. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that he trained and raced so hard at an advanced age caused him to die before his time. Of course, many of us would rather go that way, suddenly and in good shape right up to the end, but maybe if he had given that race a pass, he would still be with us. He was barely past the average life expectancy for an American male.

I’m sorry for boring so many with this long missive, but I know from conversations with fellow riders that I am not the only old geezer with a heart arrhythmia. Perhaps some of us cyclists who are 50 or older (I am a LOT older) should back off a bit and not feel that we have to attempt to stay with the younger folks on EVERY climb. Older runners may be better off doing shorter runs and allowing a few days recovery time between them. Limiting the number of hard efforts during runs or bike rides may keep some people from developing heart scarring and/or arrhythmia and help those of us who already have arrhythmia from doing more damage to our hearts.