Doctors and researchers alike seem to be constantly reminding us of the importance of taking up regular exercise. The sedentary lifestyle and obesity alike are two epidemics affecting industrialized nations and exercise and the Mediterranean diet alike are being touted as the antidote. The benefits of exercise for mind and body alike are numerous; regular exercise helps stave off heart disease and Type II diabetes and reduces the risk of many cancers, including endometrial, lung and prostate cancer. Physical activity also has wonderful effects on the brain and has been used successfully to treat everything from depression to poor memory. Giving our body a workout stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that alleviate pain, both of a physical and mental nature. Moreover, working out is one of the few ways that we can actually generate neurons, enhance the mood naturally and spark the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormone most us simply can’t get enough of. Exercise also plays an important role in keeping obesity levels down, thereby preventing a host of related diseases. In short, the benefits of exercise cannot be denied, yet we cannot help but ask the question: can exercise sometimes be too much of a good thing?
Thus far, the medical field has pointed to specific cases in which exercise can be detrimental to health. Perhaps the most important case involves those suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, who not only compromise their nutritional intake, but often also exercise excessively, thereby burning far more calories than they consume daily. When the body is placed under stress by starvation or through bouts of bingeing and purging, a tough workout can lead to everything from dizziness to fainting spells, as well as long-term damage to internal organs. Extreme exercise can affect our mental health, as well; studies have shown that mice bred to over-exercise have an inability to learn. Researchers believe that excessive concern about exercise contributes to disruptive cognitive functioning, which shows the extent to which our fitness habits can take over our minds if taken to dangerous extremes. Moreover, during cardiovascular exercise, we consume Oxygen at a dramatically increased rate, which leads to a rise in free radical consumption. Gomez-Cabrera et.al. (2005) note that free radical production owing to exercise is harmful only when exercise is too intense; when activity is moderate or not extreme, on the other hand, it promotes insulin sensitivity, which helps us stave off Type II diabetes.
Recent Findings on Detrimental Effects of Extreme Exercise
Two studies published in British journal, Heart, provide new evidence on the link between excessive exercise and negative health effects. One study found that endurance exercise increases the risk of atrial fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia that significantly increases the rate of stroke. Another study involved 1,038 patients suffering form heart disease for a 10-year period. Researchers found that those who exercised intensely on a daily basis were more than twice as likely to die of a stroke or heart attack than those who workout out between two and four days a week. Predictably, those who never exercised at all fared the worst.
Alongside the two recent studies on the potential danger of highly intense sports like marathon running, Heart published a report entitled Exercise and the heart: unmasking Mr. Hyde. The latter notes that while doctors will often prescribe drugs like statins to heart patients, they should make it a point to enlighten patients on the importance of physical activity. Nevertheless, patients (especially those with a high cardiovascular risk) should be informed of the link between regular intense exercise and conditions like atrial fibrillation, ventricular arrhythmias and ischaemic heart disease.
Let Commonsense Prevail
Those who find it hard to motivate themselves to work out, fearful of feeling fatigued early on in a workout or not being able to ‘cut it’ in high-intensity sports will find solace and motivation in the new scientific findings, which show that in sport, as in all aspects of like, moderation is the key to success. It is vital to keep exercising to avoid heart disease, obesity and dangerous conditions associated with the sedentary lifestyle (such as Deep Vein Thrombosis); however, we should do so caution and we should also listen to our bodies, paying a visit to the doctor if conditions such as arrhythmias or severe exhaustion should arise.
Harvard Health Publications, Exercise: A program you can live with, accessed August, 2014.
Cancer.Gov, Physical Activity and Cancer, accessed August, 2014.
Herbalife, Wellness Report on Obesity, accessed August, 2014.
M Gómez-Cabrera et al, Decreasing xanthine oxidase-mediated oxidative stress prevents useful cellular adaptations to exercise in rats. Journal of Physiology. 2005; 567(1): 113-120.
The Wall Street Journal, Too Much Exercise May be Harmful to Your Health, accessed August, 2014.
E Guasch et al, Exercise and the heart: unmasking Mr. Hyde. Heart. 2014; doi: 10.1136.
*This article is contributed by one of our readers, Jennifer Goode