Extreme athleticism and lifespan
May 3, 2006 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Is there any evidence linking extreme athleticism to increased or decreased lifespans?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the growing body of research findings that link very low calorie diets to marked increases in longevity. I've wondered about the mechanism involved (I'm no doctor or biologist, just curious). One theory I've read seems to indicate that burning calories leads to more free radicals which accelerate damage to cells. That leads to my question - career athletes burn lots of calories through their training - do they live shorter lives as a result? I know that moderate exercise is a good thing (staves off heart disease, diabetes, obesity, etc), but could extreme athleticism actually shorten your lifespan?
posted by sherlockt to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've heard that extreme endurance athletes, particularly ultramarthoners that ran races of 50 to 100 miles or more, are doing themselves no favors healthwise. Don't recall where I read it, but here's an article on the negative health effects of extreme cycling. Note particularly the section on depressed hormone levels leading to osteoporosis and the "limited number of heartbeats" theory.
posted by zanni at 3:31 PM on May 3, 2006

"A good example of hormesis is exercise. In theory, this should damage cells because it increases oxygen uptake, and oxidative stress is bad for things like DNA. Of course, exercise is not actually bad for cells—and the reason is that the body activates defence mechanisms which overcompensate for the stress the exercise creates, producing beneficial effects. So, while chronic stress is always bad for you, a short period of mild stress followed by a period of recovery can be good."

From the Economist.
posted by randomstriker at 3:50 PM on May 3, 2006

I've always wondered about the limited heart beat hypothesis. Do I live longer if I'm always running and exercising, or is it better to take it easy, eat healthy, but sit around all day on the computer or engage in intellectual conversation all day.
posted by banished at 4:01 PM on May 3, 2006

Randomstriker's link fits in with the reasoning I had heard for limited calories being good for mice, that it stressed the system a bit. (I have also read that that's why the findings don't really apply to humans -- we're not designed to be so stressed by fluctuations in one aspect of our environment, unlike mice who might immediately lower their reproduction rates to synch with the newly limited food sources.)
posted by occhiblu at 4:08 PM on May 3, 2006

banished: I think, but I could be wrong, that the limited heart beat thing comes from extrapolations over ranges of mice to elephants and the like. It doesn't really apply within the range of just people, where getting your heart beating more each day by doing some exercise will surely help. Saying that all animals have the same number of heartbeats is very much a rough thing anyway. It's not like you hit beat 3 billion or whatever and keel over.
posted by edd at 4:33 PM on May 3, 2006

Only anecdotally. My anecdote:
Grandfather - high stress job, smoked two packs of unfiltered cigarettes & drank a pint of bourbon every day for 30 years. Died of heart attack age 57.
My father - a mellow fellow, low stress, never smoked & only drank beer when carbo-loading before a marathon. Ran 10 miles or more every day rain or shine & 2 marathons a year for 30 years. Died (running on a track, no less) of heart failure age 54.
Me, I'm just going to lay down and not eat anything, and count out 2 billion heartbeats, see how that works out.

But I'm interested to see if anyone busts out the science.
posted by bartleby at 4:37 PM on May 3, 2006

This article is specifically about marathons and their effect on the heart.

"Among marathon runners, the biggest cardiac risk seems to arise in people who train the least. People who worked up to a marathon by running at least 45 miles a week for at least three to four months "were golden," Wood said."

What I took from this was that extreme exercise is OK if you train properly for it.
posted by Airhen at 4:49 PM on May 3, 2006

Re hearbeat hypothesis--I always wondered about this as I have been a regular runner- for 35 years.--I calculated the number at normal rates for untrained person(72 +/-) and the rate as a trained athlete (54-60)--I decided that while I spent some heart beats running there was a net savings per day based on the lower average number for the other 23 hours. Who knows what this means. BTW, I do not have the time to look up the links but alll most all studies suggest that endurance athletes have beeter health and longevity profiles all other things being even. This may not apply to super endurance athletes
posted by rmhsinc at 6:30 PM on May 3, 2006

People who were varsity athletes in college were much more likely to contract ALS, in a well-designed study published by Rowland and Mazzoni not too many years ago.

Charlie Mingus and Jason Becker also contracted ALS, which suggests to me that it may be the superior motor skills (or years of practice), rather than aerobic exercise per se, that is the correlate.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:11 PM on May 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

There was an interesting article in New Scientist recently. It showed that being a little overweight actually seems to increase your chance of surviving into old age, as you're more likely to survive serious illness or injury due to having some stored energy to fall back on.
posted by tomble at 8:18 PM on May 3, 2006

Anecdotal only [and includes name-dropping]:
I recently met Sir Edmund Hillary [87 years] and Colin Meads [71 y.o. lengendarily tough All-Black]. I was struck by how vital they both were. Both of them are big men - not sure on heights, but I think well over 6 feet. I don't think either of them ever "exercised" - Hillary did climbs and Meads worked on his farm. To me it suggested a theory - that men should lead a normal healthy life - no extreme diets, no complicated exercise programs etc - and they will live a long life...

Sorry about the lack of science...
posted by meech at 11:51 PM on May 3, 2006

Ok, a load off my back. So far a lot of hand waving, no hard stats. Kinda like marijuana being bad for you.
posted by aeighty at 12:39 AM on May 4, 2006

Well, as in many things, it depends who you ask and what evidence you choose to look at. I'm most familiar with the evidence for running at the marathon and ultramarathon distances, and there are two different but related schools of research. One says that an awful lot of things go out of whack with your body during a long run, but the duration of large change seems to be relatively small. In particular, creatitine levels spike, which is one measure of stress on the kidneys, and several LFTs get elevated as well. Both levels return to normal fairly quickly, although one of the more common health problems among ultrarunners (aside from hyponatremia) is kidney shutdown due to already stressed kidneys and rhabdomyalisis.

On the other hand, there have also been a bunch of studies suggesting that marathoning is not good in the long term for your body. A favorite among my friends and me is the one summarized here where the doc calls marathoning a "planned disease" and talks about "massive inflammatory response." Note that the study author was a marathoner. There was another recent one which got one of my same friends really thinking (although he's run a marathon since he read it), which said that running distance is bad in the long term. I don't have a ref because I'm training for a long race and don't want to read it until after that.

But, there does seem to be longterm damage. Quantifying that is difficult, particularly in contrast to the well-documented problems with being sedentary.
posted by OmieWise at 5:32 AM on May 4, 2006

Check out some of the posts on this blog:

Art De Vany's blog

Art is an economist and evolutionary fitness proponent. He has some interesting data on the negative effects of marathons on the body.
posted by shakobe at 10:43 AM on May 4, 2006

shakobe's link is very depressing.
posted by OmieWise at 11:02 AM on May 4, 2006

After reading shakobe's link I actually thought "Is that all he can come up with?". I had read De Vany's stuff before, but not the top 10 reasons not to run marathons post. Most of the reasons show correlation, not causation, and only on large population groups. At least four particiants of the Boston Marathon have died of brain cancer in the past 10 years. Four out of how many? What is the brain cancer death rate in the normal population? What was their diet and preparation like? The higher rates of osteoporosis for runners are well known (see thin, light and fragile). Again: this is true in the general running population, but individuals can do a lot to prevent bone loss (eat healthy, add weight training/back exercises).

It makes sense to me that marathon running is SO stressful for the body, that it is important that marathon runners eat a VERY healthy diet. I am always surprised to see that many marathoners do not eat that healthy. They all seem to eat eat refined flour products and eat only 5 servings of fruit/veggies a day, at most. This makes the results of all those studies difficult to interpret. I am not yet convinced that the body of a generally healthy person, who eats a healthy diet and who neither overtrains nor undertrains, cannot fully recover from a marathon. Our bodies are marvelous, if even people who smoked for decades can reverse their lung cancer risk, surely we should be able to handle a marathon every once in a while?

Of course, these are just my ideas. I would like to see a link to research that specifically deals with people who are very healthy and train well.
posted by davar at 3:07 PM on May 4, 2006

I would think that many people who engage in extreme sports, or even eXtreeeeme sports, are more likely to injure themselves and thus shorten their lifespan and quality of life after the injury.

Canadian Ministry of Health (in these here parts) says 30-60 minutes of moderate activity daily, giving swimming, biking and dancing as examples -- basically, anything that makes your breathing rate increase. Activities that make you exhausted, like sprinting, are not recommended but not discouraged either.
posted by Mozai at 2:08 PM on May 5, 2006

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