Mind & Body Your Heart Health in the Long Run

Your Heart Health in the Long Run

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By: Mark Sutcliffe

One of my greatest fears is finding out I’ve been doing something that has been slowly, incrementally and adversely affecting my long-term health while I’ve been blissfully ignorant. I dread the prospect of getting the news that everyone from smokers to coal miners have received in the past.

I’m not particularly concerned about damage to my joints, my knees or my hips, to answer the question I’m often asked by non-runners. I’ve been lucky not to experience any adverse effects so far, and even if there is some risk – and the evidence seems to suggest otherwise – I’m not too worried about hobbling a little bit later in life if that’s what it takes to enjoy running today. But I am particularly attuned to any news about running and heart health. I dread the thought of learning I’ve caused permanent cardiovascular damage with my marathon compulsion.

(Because, let’s be clear about something: nobody has to run a marathon. And even if you feel the impulse to run one, you certainly don’t need to run 10 or 20. The exercise benefits of running for 30 to 60 minutes a day are plentiful. Anything above that is more about hobby than health.)

The New York Times reported this week on a new study that suggests if you run long distances, it can have an impact on your heart. There has been other research that hinted at the same conclusion, but never with a large enough sample size to be conclusive. But the Times report cites two new, more comprehensive studies of athletes. They show those who spend years training at long distances have a surprisingly high incidence of plaque in their arteries, which can be a strong indicator of cardiovascular disease.

As alarming as that sounds, it may not be a reason for distance runners to worry. It’s complicated and very scientific – you can read the story or the studies themselves if you want more info – but apparently these plaques seem to be different from the plaques found in the hearts of people who are less active. In fact, they may not be as harmful.

But I still take it as a warning sign that while running has many benefits, there are still some risks. I’m a little bit compulsive about running and I’m not immune to the fallacy that if running is good, more running is better. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. In many things I preach moderation, but then I go out and run 25k on a Sunday morning and feel guilty if I take the next day off.

I’m not about to change what I do, and I remain convinced that running, and all the things that arise from my interest in it, have done so much more good for me than bad. But the last line of the Times story is thought-provoking. An American cardiologist advises that erring on the side of caution is never a bad idea. “If you want to run a marathon, fine, run a marathon,” he says. “But if your goal from exercise is simply to be healthy, a half-hour of jogging will do.”

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