October 6th, 2014
Some sporting activities can be really dangerous. Whether it is base-jumping, deep diving or heli-skiing, common sense tells us that we might face a possibility of ugly injuries and even death if something goes wrong. However, several recent studies show that even sports that seem relatively harmless might shorten your life considerably. Before all the couch potatoes out there start celebrating the news of being the winners in a healthy lifestyle-obsessed world, it is important to mention that the findings only apply to excessive intensive exercise. After all, as the old truth goes, more does not always equal better and sports and exercise seem to confirm this. Let's take a closer look at some of the types of exercise that can end up causing more harm than good to your body:
The emerging body of evidence shows the unsettling conclusion that too much running can damage your heart and lead to a series of cardio-vascular problems. In Heart magazine editorial, James O'Keefe and Carl J Lavie put it clear when they claimed that "running too fast, too far, and for too many years may speed one's progress towards the finish line of life." According to the presented research, while the group of people who regularly run had significantly lower death rate than those who lacked exercise, as soon as runners in the study exceeded the amount of 20 miles per week, the death rate numbers returned to non-runners' levels. Similarly, it is shown that people who run faster than eight miles per hour while jogging also lose the mortality advantage provided by regular exercise.
What exactly happens to the cardiovascular system? The Mayo clinic study suggests that extreme exercise causes changes in the heart and major arteries. Even though it may sound surprising, it seems than average marathon runners have more plaque in their coronary arteries than people who don't run at all. Scientists claim that stiff arteries and buildup in scar tissue of a heart are a result of a volume overload that is accompanied by a release of chemicals in our bodies. And just like with any pharmaceutical agents, there is a certain level when extreme exercise can become dangerous. For most of us, extreme endurance training causes metabolic changes, but our hearts quickly return to normal again. In case of elite athletes, abnormal heart rhythms and patchy scarring of a heart tissue can become a norm.
"I have heard about the study, but honestly, I don't think that recreational runners like me should worry," says Kasey, who runs more than an hour every day. When asked about the mortality rate, he just grins: "We all die sooner or later. Asking a runner about this is almost like expecting a smoker to quit because of the warnings on cigarette packages. Ain't gonna happen."
Much of what was mentioned about running can also be applied to long-distance cycling. The strenuous trainings can lead to irreversible changes of your heart. One of the researches especially focusing on cyclists took place during 1999 Tyrolean Otztaler Radmarmarathon, one of the most difficult cycling races in the world. Athletes cycle about 230 kilometres, with overall altitude change of 5,500 metres. Scientists checked the levels of a heart enzyme troponin, which is considered to be a signal for possible heart-muscle problems and eventually even death. While before the race, all cyclists' troponin levels were at zero, after the race, the levels of the enzyme were increased in one third of the followed athletes. It was also shown that younger and faster cyclists, who are used to tougher trainings were the ones with the highest risk.
Triathlon/Iron man challenges
Greg Welch, Emma Carney, Chris Legh and Torbjorn Sindballe are just a few among top endurance athletes that were forced to end their careers due to serious cardiovascular condition and every now and then we hear a sad story of someone dying of a heart attack in the middle of the race. It is not hard to guess why such things happen. Combine all the information given above and you get an idea of the extent of possible hazards accompanying triathlons and Iron man challenges. The Mayo clinic study shows that "the fatality rate for triathlons is approximately twice that of marathons, largely because of increased CV events and drownings during the swim portion of the races." If the athletes are lucky, they find out that something is not right by themselves and seek medical help before it is too late. However, many haven't had chance to do so, since their heart just did not send any warning signs in advance.
John, a regular competitor at Iron man challenges, explains that the health awareness in the sport is changing: "These days, everyone knows about the possible risks and most of the athletes get checked regularly, even if they feel fine. Heart problems are a fact in this sport, whether we like it or not."
Single-sport specialization for kids
Single sport specialization for kids is a separate issue. Parents often want their children to succeed in different sports and decide to specialize in an early age and make sure they don't miss out on anything. You can often meet 4-year olds, who spend hours at trainings and achieve surprisingly high performance levels.
According to Lora Scott, a sports medicine specialist at Dayton Children's, evidence suggests that early specialization of children and practicing too many hours every week can not only cause burnout, but also "overuse injuries, over-training syndrome, and career-ending injuries". She also remarks that children are having more and more injuries that used to be tied to elite level athletes and often need to undergo major surgeries at young age. The biggest danger here is connected to development of the kids, as their bones are still growing and regeneration phase is thus much more complicated.
The fact that children's bodies are still developing also bears another problem – repeated movement can cause uneven growth of muscles and spine deformation. For example, kids who play tennis tend to use either their right or their left hand much more often than the other one, which often leads to scoliosis and subsequent back pains.
What to do?
While the studies might suggest that excessive workout is harmful for our bodies, they also confirm the obvious truth – it is much worse to do nothing and spend your days sitting behind a computer than to get some regular movement. Recreational runners and athletes are proved to live years longer than people who lack any exercise whatsoever, as regular sports activity protects your heart by lowering blood pressure and reducing arterial plaque.
So how to find the exercise amount line that should not be crossed? The answer is simple. Balance and not overdoing things. The research by the Mayo Clinic suggested that already beyond 60 minutes of intensive workout (be careful here, this does not include activities like playing tennis) might already be the point of diminishing returns. It is also important to get varied types of exercise. Play basketball, go jogging, do some indoor climbing – the choice is up to you, just keep it diverse and fun. That's the way sport is supposed to be.
Do you know about any other sports that seem to be able to cause serious harm in the long run? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
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