Is running bad for your heart?

Don't be too quick to hang up your running shoes in the face of recent reports that distance running can harm health.
BY STEPHEN PRESCOTT AND ADAM COHEN Modified: January 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm •  Published: January 8, 2013
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Adam's journal

For us marathoners, the news was about as encouraging as a stress fracture. “Running farther, faster can kill you,” read the NBC News headline. The Wall Street Journal offered an even starker take: “One Running Shoe in the Grave.”

These and many other media outlets were reporting about a new study on the dangers of long-distance running. So what's the deal? I sure as heck don't want to swap the cozy confines of my home for bone-chilling long runs if all it's going to buy me is an early finish line in life.

Dr. Prescott prescribes

Don't be too quick to hang up your running shoes (or your hat and gloves, which you'll definitely need for winter runs).

A study published in the December issue of the British medical journal Heart looked at 52,600 people over three decades, and it found that those who ran more than 20 to 25 miles per week lived no longer than those who didn't exercise at all. Another recent study also found that people who ran faster than 7 minutes and 30 seconds per mile when they exercised enjoyed no mortality advantage over couch potatoes. But in both studies, people who ran regularly, but at shorter distances and slower paces, lived longest.

The idea that pushing too hard and too long could damage the body makes a certain amount of empirical sense, and research has shown that prolonged, intense exercise can cause short-term scarring in the heart. Still, the current data are far from determinative. They simply point to an association between long-distance and high-intensity running and shorter life spans in certain populations.

On the flip side, similar studies from Stanford University — co-authored by Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., who has since joined our faculty at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation — have found that long-distance runners enjoy longer lives and less disability than their non-running counterparts. And new research published in the British medical journal BMJ found that Olympic medalists in the most taxing endurance sports (running, cycling and rowing) had longer lives than the rest of us.

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