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This Exercise Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

You might be a little surprised to see a fitness professional write an article about how exercise could be harmful to your health. Now before you jump to conclusions hear me out.

What I’m not saying obviously is that you should avoid exercise altogether. However, there is ONE form of exercise that I’ve long been an advocate against because of the potential harmful effects on the heart and immune system.

So what is it? Long distance endurance running.

Now before all the runners get up in arms about me bashing their exercise of choice let me explain. This is not a case against the running enthusiast who likes to do several miles each day and the occasional 5K or endurance event.

What we’re talking about here is individuals doing frequent prolonged long-distance running or endurance events like marathons.

A recent study published in the Oxford Journals set out to examine heart function of 40 elite long-term endurance athletes after four endurance races. Here is what the researchers found:

  1. Right ventricular function of the heart diminished after long-term endurance events.
  2. Blood levels of cardiac enzymes (markers of heart damage) increased after long-term endurance events.
  3. The longer the endurance event, the greater the decrease in right ventricular function of the heart.
  4. 12% of the athletes had scar tissue in their heart muscle detected on MRI scans one week after the race.

While cardiovascular exercise can significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular health problems, it appears that too much is certainly not a good thing.

Anyone who chooses to participate in long-term endurance running should certainly be aware of the risk factors here and look to minimize them.  This doesn’t mean the recreational runner should necessarily discontinue their passion with running an occasional endurance event or marathon.

There are a lot of variables with frequency of long-term endurance events, recovery, and other factors that come into play. What we’re talking about here are individuals who do excessive amounts of long-distance running on a regular basis with little to no balance with other forms of exercise.

As with most anything in life, it all comes down to balance.

It should come at no surprise that excessive long-distance running, or any type of exercise for that matter, could be counter-productive. While I’ve never been of fan of long-distance running from a personal enjoyment factor, I certainly respect those who do.

As a fitness professional I try to remain unbiased on an individual’s preferred choice of exercise. My quest is to see people get physical activity in some way so they can be healthy and live life to the fullest, doing whatever it is they enjoy.

When it comes to what type of exercise is the most efficient at helping an individual obtain their desired level of health and fitness, opinions go out the door.

There’s little argument amongst experts that variety should be the cornerstone in everyone’s exercise regiments for optimal results.

Having said all that, there’s now overwhelming evidence indicating that long-distance running is one of the LEAST efficient forms of exercise there is. Taking the issues of potential cardiovascular damage and wear and tear on the joints off the table for just a second, let’s examine what’s possibly the biggest downside of excessive long-term cardio.

Why excessive long-duration cardio can be harmful to your health…

For the 20 plus years I’ve been researching fitness, health, and wellness, I’ve come to a handful of firm conclusions. One of those is the concrete link between inflammation in the human body and degenerative disease. Inflammation, in all its forms, is without question one of the biggest risk factors we have with our health.

Excessive long-term endurance running contributes to significant increases in inflammation and cortisol levels, especially when inadequate recovery or a lack of variety is built into an exercise regiment.

The simple fact is the longer you go with an endurance activity like long-distance running, the more catabolic you become. This just simply means you produce more of the stress hormone cortisol which can contribute to lean muscle breakdown.

The body responds with high levels of inflammation as a protective mechanism, which by nature is a good thing, but left unchecked you have a disrupted hormonal balance across the entire endocrine system that negatively affects the immune system.

It doesn’t take an expert to see this correlation with a blind eye by looking at the differences in an elite sprinter versus and elite marathon runner. Which one looks “healthier” at first glance?

We’re not talking about which body type looks more personally appealing or anything like that. Which body more closely reflects several markers of health and fitness across the board?

This doesn’t mean you can’t do some long-distance running or occasional endurance event and still be healthy, lean, and muscular. The picture of the endurance runner doesn’t reflect all runners in all fairness.

The point is there’s going to be trade-offs anytime you put all your focus on one component of fitness, some trade-offs will be more significant than others.

The bodybuilder who doesn’t incorporate cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, range of motion, and other components is certainly going to have “gaps” of vulnerability in their routine. This is no different than the endurance runner who doesn’t incorporate resistance training, core strengthening, and anaerobic work.

The secret lies in having balance and developing a fitness routine, regardless of desired activities, that doesn’t leave gaps of vulnerability.

The problem is to be the “best of the best” with bodybuilding , marathon running,  powerlifting, or what have you, is going to pretty much necessitate a myopic training focus.

For those individuals it’s an understood trade-off to perform at an elite level. This conversation is more for individuals who are simply looking to obtain a desirable level of health with their exercise while still performing the activities they enjoy.

A case for burst training and interval training…

As you probably know I’m a big proponent of doing burst training with resistance exercise and the sister variation, interval training, with cardiovascular exercise. In essence I’m all about doing short bursts of high intensity effort followed by brief recovery periods with most workouts.

The occasional low intensity aerobic exercise or workout is certainly fine and can be beneficial for balance, but the foundation for optimal health and fitness is found by working ALL the energy systems.

This is the interesting side of doing shorter duration burst style workouts. If you spend the majority of your time doing long-duration running for example, you can get efficient at long-distance running. No duh, right?

While this is true, you’ll also become inapt at doing other activities that involve the glycolytic and anaerobic energy systems.

Take the individual who excels at running a 5K for example. They do a lot of running and have become very efficient at it, but it’s pretty much all they do. Ask this individual to pick up a heavy object off the floor several times and press it over their head and watch them crumble in no time. It’s what you’d expect since they haven’t trained their body to work in that way.

But watch this…let’s now take the individual who spends the majority of their time doing burst and interval training working all the energy systems. You’d expect him or her to be very good at doing short duration activities but likewise be relatively inefficient at longer duration activities.

The interesting thing is this isn’t the case!

Ask a fit individual who has trained with burst principals to do a 5K and they’ll do reasonably well. They probably won’t break any records but they’ll be able to do it. There’s an interesting cross-over where training this way develops the body to perform in all energy systems across the board.

Surprisingly you can improve your endurance by doing short-duration bursts of all-out effort. However doing endurance running only would just make you good at long-distance running.

This concept is being recognized by elite athletes in all sports who are now using CrossFit and other modalities to improve their performance. Gone are the days when a triathlete for example only incorporated running, swimming, and biking into their training regiments.

The evidence clearly points to the benefits of doing burst or metabolic resistance training as at least a component of an optimal fitness training protocol. If you’re just looking to get in shape and drop some unwanted pounds it can be the only type of fitness training you have to do.

Sure you can run several miles a day or spend hours on the treadmill if you enjoy it. Far be it from me to tell you to not do exercise you enjoy. But if you’re doing it because you think it’s the best way to get in shape and lose weight, I’ll tell you flat out this is false.

At my Shaping Concepts personal training studios we’ve used burst and interval training principals to help hundreds of Charleston area residents get in the best shape of their lives with a 30 minute workout.

I can understand if you’re skeptical. Don’t just take my word for it but take a look at the numerous success stories and see for yourself. Hopefully, I’ve explained in enough detail that this is not an argument against distance running because it’s going to automatically ruin your health.

I know plenty of distance runners who are in excellent health and shape because they incorporate other means of fitness training. Just stand forewarned that if you’re doing nothing but excessive amounts of long-term cardio it may come at a price to your health.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston fitness trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides personal fitness programs with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. You can receive a FREE, no-obligations (2) session personal training trial and consultation to experience the difference for yourself.

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Category: Fitness Training.