Recent medical studies suggest that ambitious exercise after a certain age makes athletes more susceptible to the very ailments they’re trying to avoid. The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker summarized those studies in his recent article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave.’ Hellicker joined Bill to discuss how older athletes should respond to the latest research.
BL: Your story begins with the assertion that for older athletes “running can take a toll on the heart that essentially eliminates the benefits of exercise.” Define “older athletes.”
KH: Well, I don’t know so much that it is the age itself of the athlete, but how long he or she has been doing it. If you have been running far and fast over a long period of time, this research suggests that you may be wearing your heart out.
BL: How much running did the researchers cited in your article determine that athletes in their 50s and 60s should do?
KH: They tend to say 20-25 miles a week. Which, as you know, for serious marathoners, for some of them, that’s one day’s worth of running. There are many runners out there who do between 20 and 50. And you’re in Boston, I mean, Boston’s ground zero for distance running in America, right?
BL: Yes, but there are those of us who do not do it.
KH: Well, these studies offer comfort to you!
BL: What are the specific risks older athletes face if they overdo it?
KH: The original reason that running was promoted back in the ‘60s was to try to reduce the incidents of heart attack and to clean out one’s coronary arteries. So, one of the big surprises is that the runners who run a lot in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond often have the coronary arteries of people who have never gotten off the couch. It is kind of strange if you think about it that we discover that exercise is probably the most potent medicine we’ve ever discovered. It can do more in terms of improving your health and your longevity than anything else we know. So we take one little exercise like running and we say, “okay, so go do that for 26 miles,” as opposed to going in the gym and doing a variety of exercises. That’s what most of these researchers are now doing: less of the endurance aerobic activities and more muscle building, and frankly more walking. It seems to me the more we know about exercise, the more good, old-fashioned walking comes out king.
BL: One of the vocal critics of these studies is Paul Thompson, a former elite marathoner who is also a cardiologist. He says the people behind these studies “have an agenda.” Is he correct?
KH: If I’m working on a story, my agenda as a journalist is always to find news. So, I think these researchers in that respect have an agenda. But the authors of these studies are, as far as I can tell, either current or former endurance athletes and they all profess to be very unhappy with these results. It is interesting though, Bill, because everybody in this debate seems to have a stake. I mean, we all either exercise or we don’t. We all love to read stuff that says, “what I’m doing is right.”
BL: You’re a triathlete, or have been. Has what you’ve learned has changed your own exercise routine?
KH: I’m 53 and I’m doing a fraction of what I did 10 years ago, so it seems to me that it kind of happened naturally. But I was feeling like, “golly, shouldn’t I go back to doing 20 hours a week of running, and swimming, and cycling, the way I did 10 years ago?” So it was a tremendous relief for me to say, “you know what, it’s okay. What I’m doing is okay.” And I think that’s the good news for people reading this, that if you’re going out and you’re walking an hour a day, that’s great, and you probably don’t need to feel guilty that you’re not running marathons.