It is commonly accepted that regular physical activity, such as running, can improve your overall health and reduce the risk of chronic disease. But can more extreme exercise, such as marathon running, actually increase our risk of heart problems, perhaps by ‘straining’ or ‘overtraining’ our heart and circulation (fortunately, the actual risk of a cardiac event during extreme exertion such as a marathon is very low)? Recently, researchers in Hartford reported on a very interesting study- they recruited Boston Marathon participants to undergo a vascular ultrasound and physical prior to the marathon, in order to compare the plaque buildup in their carotid arteries to average non-runners. But what was most interesting was that they also recruited the runner’s spouses for the same checkup – and noted if they were runners or non-runners. Their theory was that the spouses would have the same “heart healthy” lifestyle as their running mates, minus the endurance training.
So what did they find? This article from the New York Times has the details (and this link is to the original research article) . . . .essentially they showed that the runners were indeed healthy overall, with generally better body weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol than non-runners. . . but many still had significant plaque buildup in their hearts, especially if they were older or had ongoing risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. So running did not cancel out the effects of other risk factors, but did not increase heart risk either. What can we conclude from this research? Running, or other high level fitness, improves health and reduces risk – but does not excuse us from monitoring our blood pressure, our weight, our diet, or our cholesterol levels.
The most intriguing conclusion? It turns out the spouses of the runners, even if not runners themselves, had better than expected risk profiles and plaque buildup, probably from the same heart healthy lifestyle that most runners employ. The article quotes the lead researcher as saying: If you want improved heart health but can’t be a runner, marry one! Hopefully my wife finds that advice reassuring!