I'm sure you're very familiar with the emphasis that is placed on getting enough physical activity, and it's true that we need to ensure we get enough exercise. Moderate exercise levels have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. However, there is now increasing concern that getting too much exercise leads to a state of chronic inflammation, which can have detrimental effects on numerous aspects of your health. Running marathons is of particular concern.
Overall, people who exercise regularly experience significant benefits, and tend to live 7 years longer than people who are physically inactive. But as with practically everything, there is definitely such a thing as too much. In a review of studies of people who trained at extreme levels to participate in marathons, triathlons, ultramarathons or long bike races, it was found that the health effects of all their activity tended to not only wane, but to actually reverse and turn toxic.
You may be aware that 'marathon' originates from the Greek legend of the professional runner, Phidippides (also spelled Pheidippides), who ran the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens to report the outcome of a battle. When he arrived, he is reported to have staggered and gasped, "Rejoice! We conquer," collapsed, and died.
A 42.2 km (26.2 mile) race was part of the first modern Olympic games, and was run in Boston in 1896, with about 25 and 17 runners respectively. One hundred years later, 50,000 runners took part in the 1996 Boston marathon. While most people recover reasonably quickly from running a marathon, adverse health outcomes, including several deaths in recent years, continue to occur to marathon runners.
While many lab results are unusually high in runners after a marathon, indicative of inflammation among other things, it has been found that during and immediately following a marathon, runners show up to a 50% increase in levels of an enzyme called troponin which indicates damage to the heart (it's the same enzyme that shoots up in people having heart attacks).
"When you're sitting around, your heart is pumping about five quarts of blood a minute, and if you run up the stairs hard or push yourself physically, it can go up to 35 or 40 quarts a minute," says author Dr. James O'Keefe. "If you go and run for 26 miles, or do a full-distance triathlon, it completely overtaxes the heart. The heart is pumping 25 quarts a minute for hours and hours, and that starts to cause muscle fibers to tear, which leads to a bump in troponin and in other enzymes associated with inflammation, and it causes the death of some muscle cells in the heart."
Over time, that damage can cause scar tissue on the heart, and a thickened, scarred heart is more vulnerable to abnormal heart rhythms. People who chronically exercise at extreme levels tend to have thicker right atria (which receive deoxygenated blood from the veins) and larger right ventricles (which pump this blood out to the lungs to be oxygenated). In fact, studies show that endurance athletes have five times the risk of atrial fibrillation, or fluctuations in the heartbeat that can trigger more serious problems such as stroke.
You may remember we discussed the health benefits of increasing levels of nitric oxide (NO) (with arginine) in previous newsletters (February 2012 and February 2013), and that it benefits all areas of cardiovascular health. A recent study found reduced levels of NO in study subjects who participated in prolonged exercise, but not for those who exercised moderately. Reduced NO results in - you guessed it - inflammation.
Caption on T-shirt seen at the Ottawa Marathon several years ago
How to speed recovery from a marathon
If you're not convinced that perhaps running a marathon should be a once in a lifetime event (if that), here are some tips to help you recover more quickly:
20 marathon runners drank either tart cherry juice (made from Montmorency cherries) or a placebo for 5 days before the race and 2 days after. Those who drank the cherry juice recovered their strength more quickly than the control group. Inflammation and oxidative stress were also reduced in the group that drank the cherry juice.
Among Zambroza’s key ingredients is mangosteen, a tasty fruit found in eastern tropical nations, such as Thailand. Mangosteen contains the greatest known supply of compounds called xanthones. Xanthones offer powerful immune and cardiovascular support. Other ingredients in this nutritious juice include wolfberry, sea buckthorn, red grapes, grape seeds, grape skins, raspberries, blueberries, apple extract and green tea.
How much exercise is enough?
In a recent study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine, it was reported among 14,000 runners that the optimal amount of running appeared to be 10 to 15 miles per week. Those who ran more seemed to lose any heart benefits, but their average life expectancy never decreased beyond that of sedentary people.
Everyone, with few exceptions for some health conditions, benefits from at least 15 minutes a day, several days a week, of moderate activity. This is enough to give you significant health benefits in relation to total couch potatoes, so if this is what works for you, that's perfectly fine. The majority of health benefits actually occur at this level.
Options for improving your health beyond this basic level include increasing the amount of time you spend being physically active, and increasing the intensity of the activity. Most of us are busy, and find it difficult to find additional time to spend exercising.
In addition, there are too many types of beneficial activity to mention here, but I'd like to put in a good word for yoga. It's especially well known for reducing stress levels in addition to improving many aspects of health. I highly recommend it.
High intensity interval training (HIIT)
If you are interested in achieving really high levels of fitness while avoiding the pitfalls of endurance training, you may be interested in high intensity interval training (HIIT) where exercising for short periods of time at very high intensity is interspersed with periods of moderate rest. The workouts are short and involve as little as 4 minutes of intense activity combined with rest for a total workout of only around 20 minutes. Because HIIT is so intense, you should only do it 2 to 3 times per week, maximum, making it a workout that anyone can fit into their schedules. It's recommended that you do less intense exercise on days you don't do HIIT.
Here are the core principles (without specifying the activity):
Note: If you have a history of heart disease or any medical concern please get clearance from your health care professional before you start this. Most people of average fitness will be able to do it though; it is only a matter of how much time it will take you to build up to the full routine.
Clearly, this just scratches the surface if HIIT, but I hope it gives you the idea, and if time for exercise is an issue for you (and you're reasonably healthy) you might be encouraged to look into this.
HIIT isn’t for everyone. It’s an incredibly effective method for improving fitness in a short time, but it’s also extremely taxing on the body. It’s best to start gradually and incorporate it into your training over time. HIIT is particularly effective at reducing fat mass, and especially visceral fat, together with increases in aerobic power. Therefore, it's very relevant as a partial solution to the obesity epidemic.
But don't underestimate the benefits of a good, old-fashioned walk most days, combined with some strength training. Life doesn't have to be complicated!
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