Run for your life-away from strenuous exercise!
The slogan "Run for Your Life" is branded on the brain of every American over the age of 16. Strenuous physical activity-including running, lifting, swimming, climbing, even sex (of the aerobic type) and pulling weeds-is guaranteed to give you a longer life. Of course, that's provided you don't get hit by an SUV while jogging, get a 2-ton weight dropped on you at the gym, get eaten by a shark while swimming, fall off that mountain while climbing, tumble out of bed while having sex, or get bitten by a rattlesnake while weeding.
You may not like what I'm about to say, and you may refuse to accept it-especially if you are a devout follower of the notions that pounding iron will keep you healthy, that pounding the pavement is a "run for life," and that the pounding of your heart is good for you. But, in my opinion there is no credible evidence that any of this exercise will prolong your life.
There is, however, a lot of proof that it will increase your morbidity, and not just because of accidents. If you have serious, unrecognized heart disease, you may experience sudden death from a heart attack. In fact, the leading cause of exercise-related deaths even in well-trained athletes is coronary heart disease.
The paradox of the exercise craze
Enlargement of the heart, technically known as cardiomegaly, is considered a healthy sign in athletes. But in the rest of us, it is considered a serious sign of heart disease. Does this give you any clues as to why super athletes often die young-from heart disease? Is their enlarged heart a sign of health or impending disaster? Many athletes also have irregular electrocardiograms that would be considered serious signs of heart disease in the non-athletic. But since they are "in shape," it will be considered benign. After all, these people are young and the epitome of physical prowess, and so they must be indestructible. Right?
Tell that to Pheidippides, the first "marathoner." He ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 26 miles, to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. He delivered his message and then dropped dead. Things haven't changed much in the last 2,500 years. Marathoners are still dropping dead at the finish, if you will pardon the double entendr.
The problem is that even runners who believe they are being cautious by visiting a doctor for a checkup and testing prior to a race are sadly mistaken. Most people not only have great faith in the exercise myth but equal faith that their doctor, perhaps a "sports medicine" expert, can clear them for marathon running. Unfortunately, the doctor's permission is generally based on the golden rule for fitness and health-the stress test, which has proven to be worthless.
Stress tests are not reproducible, which actually makes them dangerous rather than merely useless. In other words, you may have serious coronary artery blockage and exhibit a normal stress test. The doctor sees a normal stress test and pronounces: "You are clear for that 24 K run. Good luck!" (You'll need it.)
The proof is in the journals
One study involved 10 cases of sudden death among marathon runners. Nine of the 10 died of heart attacks secondary to severe coronary heart disease. The researchers' conclusion: Severe coronary atherosclerosis is the most common cause of death in marathon runners.
The researchers pursued these startling findings further with the collection of 24 cases of joggers-not marathoners, mind you, but just joggers. Thirteen died while jogging and six soon after jogging. All but one had severe coronary artery disease.
The American Journal of Cardiology published a study on five cases of runners who died of heart attacks after a run. All five died of coronary atherosclerosis. None had evidence of artery disease before becoming a runner.
Researchers at Stanford University Medical Center reported on 18 runners who died during or immediately after jogging. These were all experienced, fit, and apparently healthy runners. Most of them had run for a minimum of a year and some for as long as five years. Although four of them died during competition, most of them died during their regular exercise routines!
As the researchers stated, "Neither superior athletic performance nor habitual physical exercise guarantees protection against an exercise death."
This grim state of affairs does not apply only to running and jogging. Any kind of aerobic exercise, if done more than moderately, can induce atherosclerosis and consequent heart disease. Dr. Lionel Opie found coronary heart disease to be the cause of death in 18 of 21 people who died after exercise-only one was a runner.
Ray H. Roseman, M.D., did a study, brilliant in its simplicity, that proves the point. He studied the history of 2,635 federal employees as to their athleticism, or the lack thereof, and its relationship to coronary artery disease. He concluded that inactivity was not a health risk.
Exercise puts your heart on shaky ground
After bypass surgery, it is customary to manage the patient as though he were going to enter the marathon in the Olympics. He is jogged and measured and jogged and measured again. The measurements-EKGs, stress testing, and the like-prove nothing. However, there is the assumption that putting stress on a sick and recently traumatized heart is going to somehow improve it. The postoperative patients are eventually able to tolerate more exercise, which is interpreted as improved cardiac health. As iterated above, there is no evidence for this.
Consider the following Swedish study: A total of 315 heart attack patients were divided into two groups. Half of the patients received exercise training and half no exercise. There was no evidence that the exercise group fared better than the control group in terms of death rates or the rate of recurrence of heart attacks.
Need more scientific evidence? A Canadian study found a high-intensity exercise group had more heart attacks (9.5 percent) compared to the low-exercise group (7.3 percent).
One can only conclude that the entire heart-exercise paradigm is a fraud-and a waste of time, money, and lives. The true story, the one that you won't hear from the exercise physiologist or the sports medicine doctor, is appalling. A compelling argument can be made that overexercising can cause atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
Exercise won't lower your blood pressure
The benefit of vigorous exercise for high blood pressure, accepted by many as a given, is simply not proven. Marvin Moser, M.D., a professor of medicine at New York Medical College and the top expert in the U.S. on hypertension, says, "There are no convincing data that systematic exercise, even if performed vigorously three to four times a week, has resulted in significant lowering of blood pressure."
I have maintained for many years that moderately high blood pressure requires no treatment and that treatment may cause more harm than good. As one ages, the walls of the arteries become less elastic. This alone can account for the fact that most of us will have some increase in resting blood pressure with age. Dangerous drugs are not going to "unthicken" the arteries.
A special warning to women
Female readers should pay special attention to this report-not only are their hearts at risk but so are their reproductive and skeletal systems. The female hormonal system changes with exercise and not for the better. Menstrual irregularities and even complete cessation of menstruation, occur frequently with excessive exercise.
That's serious enough, but it is not the worst of it. This hormonal imbalance may cause significant loss of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals, which can lead to osteoporosis, a serious condition that exercise is supposed to prevent.
Women are simply not designed for vigorous sport, and, until the 20th Century, they avoided it. When I was in high school in the 1950s, there was not a single girls' athletic team. And, at that time, there were very few in the colleges. Now, "physical education" is a requirement.
It all comes down to gravity
As Dr. Henry Solomon points out in his seminal book, The Exercise Myth, women have a different center of gravity than men. (You can take that a number of ways and still be on target.) A man's center of gravity is near the belly button. A woman's center of gravity is between the hips. The center of gravity is where the body receives the greatest force in vigorous activity. This leads to stress fractures of the pelvis, and this force is transmitted to the female sex organs in the lower abdomen (the pelvic cavity) with unknown effect. Pelvic fractures can lead to a lifetime of back and pelvic pain.
There is another "structural problem" in women that also has to do with the pelvis. Being designed for the delivery of babies, the female pelvis is proportionally wider than the male pelvis. This causes the thigh bones to angle inward where they meet with the knees. So stress put on the female knee has quite a different effect from that on the male knee. Add to this the facts that female musculature is not as firm or strong (ounce for ounce) as male musculature and that female joints are more mobile due to delicate and supple ligaments. All of this adds up to a recipe for knee dislocations, sprains, and torn ligaments.
Women also have much narrower shoulders than men: They are not designed for lifting weight, especially over the head. Most women who "work out" in the gym will eventually have shoulder problems, especially bursitis, which is very painful-even debilitating. If you have something heavy that needs to be put on a high shelf, get some hairy male to do it (that's what they're made for).
Women are not designed for vigorous, stressful exercise. Men and women are not the same, and legislation will not change this basic physiologic fact.
A very important point, one that will be accepted by very few, is that there probably is no relationship at all between exercise and longevity. If there is one, it is a negative association, since all the good studies illustrate deleterious effects of excessive exercise. There is probably no more relationship between exercise and longevity than there is between how much rhubarb you eat and whether you will die of Chaga's disease.
Actions to take:
(1) If you are pumping iron, running five miles a day (especially on a hard surface), or playing three sets of tennis in the sun because you expect to lose weight, you will be disappointed. And you may eventually damage your joints and even injure your heart. The only real way to lose weight and keep it off is to adopt a low (close-to-zero) carbohydrate, high animal-fat, animal-protein diet.
(2) For a good perspective on the entire subject of exercise and health, read The
Exercise Myth by Henry A. Solomon, M.D.. Although this book is out of print, it is available in limited quantities from amazon.com.
(3) If you find all of this hard to believe, take this issue to your doctor and ask him to
obtain copies of the scientific studies referenced below. He will be as shocked as you are.
(4) If you like muscle building, running, and rappelling, that's fine, but don't expect it to give you a longer and healthier life. RH
Solomon, Henry, M.D. The Exercise Myth; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY, 1984
Chapman, et. al. American Journal of Public Health 1957; 47: 33-42
Malhotra, et. al. British Heart Journal 1967: 895-905
Punsar, et. al. Advances in Cardiology 1976; 18: 196-207
Wilhelmsen, et. al. Preventive Medicine, 1975; 4: 491-508
Rechnitzer, et. al. American Journal of Cardiology 1981; 47: 419
Rosenman. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1977; 301: 627-641
Moser. Primary Cardiology 1980; 6(4): 11
Allison, et. al. Journal of Cardiac Rehabilitation 1981; 1(4): 257-265
Lees, et. al. New England Journal of Medicine 1982; 306: 1,546-1,548
Thompson, et. al. Journal of the American Medical Association 1982; 247: 2,535-2,569