Q: I’m 57; I’ve been running marathons for 25 years and was just told I have coronary artery disease. How is that possible?
— Brad J.,
A: Your heart health depends on what you do for exercise, how you fuel your body and manage stress, and the quality of your daily environment. Stress, sugar, red meat and tobacco smoke can each overwhelm the benefits of physical activity. And while a new study shows marathon running is associated with a reduction in levels of the inflammation marker C-reactive protein, lousy LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, heart rate and weight, it also reveals that running marathons cannot protect you from hardening of the carotid artery associated with known cardiovascular risk factors (like red meat and added sugars) and the constant stress of super-endurance training. Many studies (reviewed in our book “The RealAge Workout”) show that more than two hours of nonstop physical activity overwhelms your free-radical quenching systems and can cause injury. Another recent study showed that marathon runners had MORE coronary atherosclerosis than sedentary folks!
So how did you develop heart disease? If you figured you could eat anything you wanted and just burn it off, you see now that doesn’t work. Eating any of the Five Food Felons — trans or saturated fats from four-legged animals; two-legged animal skin, palm or coconut oil; added sugar and sugar syrups; and any grain that isn’t 100 percent whole — damages vital body systems even if you’re not overweight. And repeatedly exercising for more than two hours at a clip may increase calcification (stiffening) of the arteries and plaque deposits along blood vessel walls.
We suggest a more balanced routine. Don’t run more than 1.5 hours at a time and 15 miles a week. Walk an extra 30 to 60 minutes a day; try the interval training routine outlined at sharecare.com. Do strength training two to three days a week, lose the Food Felons and take up a stress-reduction practice like mindful meditation to help quell chronic inflammation. You’ll dial back to a younger RealAge and a healthier heart.