Health: Is there such a factor as an excessive amount of train?

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A team of researchers compared the mortality of top athletes with that of their recreational workers.

Article author:

Jill Barker • • Especially for Montreal Gazette

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February 21, 2021 • • 38 minutes ago • • Read 4 minutes SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 9: (LR) Sjur Roethe from Norway, Alex Harvey from Canada and Martin Johnsrud Sundby from Norway lead the field at the men's skiathlon 15 km Classic + 15 km Free on day two of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in Laura at Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center on February 9, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote / Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 461588407Sjur Roethe from Norway, Alex Harvey from Canada and Martin Johnsrud Sundby from Norway lead the race in the men’s skiathlon 15 km Classic and 15 km Free at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. A study of elite athletes found that endurance athletes – a category that includes cross-country skiers – increased life expectancy the most. Photo by Richard Heathcote /.Getty Images

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Given that regular exercise is linked to good health, it is easy to assume that fit, strong, top athletes are healthier than the rest of us. However, the adage that too much good is not always good applies to physical activity. Overtraining can put stress on the heart, weaken the immune system, increase the risk of injury, and negatively affect sleep and mood.

How Much Exercise is Too Much? Nobody knows for sure. However, some studies have shown that the protective effects of physical activity on heart health may decrease in endurance athletes whose exercise habits are measured in hours rather than minutes per week. And given that most top athletes devote decades of their lives to training at intensities and volumes well above average, could it be that their extreme training habits have a negative rather than protective effect on long-term health?

To shed more light on the relationship between chronically vigorous exercise and longevity, and to determine whether some sports or activities are more or less protective of health, a team of researchers from the UK compared all-cause mortality and cardiovascular and cancer-related deaths among elite athletes their leisure-time colleagues.

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Their review included 24 studies with a total of 165,033 athletes (139,322 men and 25,711 women). The researchers found that the sample of female athletes was too small to be segregated by activity / sport and limited their sport-specific longevity check to male athletes. They divided the group into endurance (medium and long-distance runners, rowers, cross-country skiers, a skier, ice skater, and Tour de France cyclist), team sports (soccer, baseball, soccer, hockey, and basketball), and strength athletes (boxers, wrestlers, weightlifters, and throwing events in athletics) with a small percentage (3.1 per) cent) of athletes with an indefinite specialty.

“The key findings of this review are: (1) elite male and female athletes live longer than the general population; (2) male athletes have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality than the general population; (3) The overall causal and cardiovascular mortality of strength athletes did not differ significantly from the general population. (4) Cancer mortality among endurance athletes was not significantly different from the general population, ”explained the researchers.

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In particular, male and female elite athletes had a 31 and 49 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality compared to less active members of the population, respectively. But that’s not the most interesting result. Not all sports and activities offered the same long-term health benefits. Male endurance athletes benefited from the greatest increase in life expectancy. Marathon runners, Tour de France cyclists and Olympians who competed in endurance sports increased their life expectancy by four, eight and six years, respectively, compared to the general population. Team athletes also benefited from a higher life expectancy, albeit to a lesser extent.

Much of the extra longevity is related to superior cardiovascular fitness, which translates into better heart health and explains why endurance athletes live longer than team athletes and strength athletes. Elite athletes were also less likely to die from cancer than the general population, although again not all types of activity offered the same level of protection.

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While the researchers recognized the power of exercise that contributes to long-term health, they speculated that other lifestyle habits also make a significant contribution to the longevity of elite athletes.

“Former athletes smoke less, drink less and are more physically active over the long term than the general population. All of these add significantly to cancer risk and mortality,” the researchers say.

The idea that lifestyle is a powerful indicator of overall health is not new. But this rating by top athletes reminds recreational athletes and sofa potatoes alike of the importance of a healthy, active lifestyle. And while researchers admit that it’s impossible to know whether lifestyle or exercise will have the greatest impact on longevity, it’s likely that combining the two will provide the greatest boost to long-term health and wellbeing.

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The other important message is that there is a dose-response relationship between exercise and lifelong health. While most of us will never match the training habits of top athletes, the idea that more exercise leads to more benefits is reason enough to aim for more than the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

Which activity leads to the greatest increase in longevity is a moot point for most of us. Choosing an activity that you like will lead to better compliance, especially in the long run. Not everyone is mentally and physically suitable as an endurance athlete. So don’t feel any pressure to run 10 km after you’re at home in the weight room. The goal is to make exercise a part of your lifestyle, and not just in small doses. If you want to reap the longevity-enhancing benefits of exercise later in life, you need to get to work.

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