Everyone knows the importance of exercise. But is there such a thing as too much of it? Apparently, there is.
According to a bunch of studies, while regular exercise is good for your heart, too much is bad for it.
So now the $64 question: How much is too much?
Hopefully, it's not something most of us'll have to worry about, since the exercisers who had an increased rate of heart disease were super-endurance freaks.
While marathon runners were mentioned in the studies, the people really at risk were ultra-marathoners, those hardcores who run 50-, 100-, or 150-mile races.
Yeah you read it right the first time - 150 miles. And in many cases they're running in deserts, over mountains and through all sorts of wildlands.
Originally, I heard about the damaging aspect of exercise from the Amazon Queen, back in February or so. I dismissed it as unsubstantiated alarmism, something that catches and holds people's attention far better than something reasonable and scientifically supported. But after a while I ran across more articles, based on more data, and decided maybe there was something to it. Then at the end of March, when I heard the news about Micah True, I paid some serious attention to the issue.
Don't feel bad if you never heard of Micah True, because almost no one had, until his death. And even then the only reason they heard was because of his death.
Though unknown to the general public, True was a legend among runners. He was a one-of-a-kind guy, for sure. He was labeled a "trailrunning bum," much like a ski bum or surf bum. He literally lived to run and worked what others might consider menial jobs, but did so only to support his running.
And run he did. He was reputed to run 170 mile weeks, which even if not true, probably wasn't too far off the mark. He ran ultramarathons, but only because he loved running, not competition. He also had befriended, lived among, was accepted by and ran with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, a tribe arguably the greatest long-distance runners in the world.
He eschewed material possessions, status and the spotlight, and was a man of genuine humility. Moreover, nowhere is there a record of anyone saying a bad thing about him.
But back to last March: Micah True went out for a "short" 12-mile runand never came back. When they found his body, he was sitting with his feet in a stream, with no sign of trauma.
I read the autopsy report and then, trying to find cause of death in layman's terms, read interpretations of the autopsy report by other doctors. Cutting to the chase, the cause of death was heart failure, but heart failure due to an unhealthily enlarged heart. And that enlargement was, according to the experts, due to excessive exercise.
So what's the relevance of all this to me?
Just this: I once was a serious runner. Then in my Golden Years I became an erratic one, but of late I've become more serious about it. I ran a half-marathon a few weeks ago, and have decided I'm going to attempt a full marathon in September. When I saw headlines about running being worse for you than lethargy - to the point of even being fatal - I got real interested real fast. I mean, if Micah True, at 58, lean, mean and running effortlessly for dozens of miles, dropped dead just like that, what're the odds of little old chubby, undertrained me running a marathon and not croaking?
Turns out my odds are good.
Apparently this issue of enlarged hearts pertains only to the super endurance athletes. We hackers just can't push our hearts hard enough and long enough to enlarge them.
So how come the ultra-runners damage their hearts? One reason is their pain threshold: They might even be experiencing symptoms of coronary distress, but because they can tolerate enormous amounts of pain, they just don't recognize or register it. The other is they, like the rest of us, probably thought running could only help your heart, not hurt it.
So with all this new information, will the super-endurance athletes pay attention to the warnings, quit pushing themselves so much and stick with safer and "saner" training? It's too early to tell, but I doubt it.
First, they define themselves as super-endurance athletes. Lessening their training could reduce their self-images and self-esteem, and how good are any of us at doing that?
Second, contrary to what a lot of people think about runners, they probably feel powerful to the point of invulnerability (whether truly they are or not).
And third, while the indications are super-endurance training can harm some people, it doesn't mean it will harm all of them. That seems always enough to make people think the other guy's gonna catch the next bullet.
While people have always made fun of those athletes, now they might label them downright nuts. But I don't think that's fair or even reasonable. Instead, it's just an example of how we apply the label "crazy" to what we don't or won't understand.
You want to talk about a crazy and deadly behavior, how about this: Cell phone use while driving.
Whether you like them or not, the statistics are there. And they clearly prove that talking on a cell phone while driving puts you a great risk of an accident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, talking on a cell phone is the cause of almost 25 percent of all accidents. Texting is even worse.
And as close as they can figure, in 2009, 867 fatal car crashes involved cell phones. Yet it's obvious, that in spite of this (and that it's illegal in New York State) drivers speaking or texting on cell phones is ubiquitous. Don't believe me? Just look around.
So extreme endurance sport might be fatal. Cell phone use behind the wheel can also be fatal. But while the athletes can kill themselves, drivers can - and do - kill others.
If this doesn't make us examine our underlying assumptions of what is or isn't sane, I don't know what does.