I’ve had a love-hate relationship with running for the last two decades (love being able to fit into my pants, hate the actual running). But I have great respect for the midlife athletes I know, so I’m not deriving any schadenfreude from Kevin Helliker’s article from Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, One Running Shoe in the Grave. Helliker’s thesis: While running, like all forms of cardiovascular exercise, is undoubtedly beneficial to boomers, doing too much of it essentially erases many of the health benefits.
Helliker highlights a study in the British journal Heart that followed the exercise habits of more than 50,000 people for three decades. Helliker explains that while runners in the study group had a significantly lower death rate than non-runners, “those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.” Another large study, also cited in Heart, found that runners who ran faster than 8 miles per hour also saw no mortality benefit from their exercise. (An 8-mph pace equates to a seven-and-a-half minute mile, much slower than the typical elite race-winner’s time.) Cardiologists offer several explanations, noting that older “extreme” athletes, while often healthier overall, are also more prone to cardiac abnormalities and atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia that’s a leading cause of stroke.
This research isn’t decisive, of course, and every doctor and scientist knows that correlation isn’t the same as causation. But more of the cardiological establishment seems to be lining up behind the point of view of cardiologist James O’Keefe, the author of the new Heart study (and a former champion triathlete), who tells Helliker: “After age 50, pushing too hard is probably not good for one’s heart or longevity.”