3 Reasons Cardio Isn’t Going to Kill You: Part 1
Do endurance exercise and cardio really cause heart attacks or plaque formation? Is cardio likely to kill you?
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Recently, the Wall Street Journal released a controversial article called, “The Potential Cardiac Dangers of Extreme Exercise,” which revisited a question I’ve explored before: how much exercise is too much?
But this study unveiled new findings—specifically, the disturbing news that exercise which is extreme in volume and intensity is associated with high levels of atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary arteries. The study that the article reports on looked at 169 veteran competitive endurance athletes and compared them to a control group of 171 relatively sedentary subjects. The study revealed lower levels of coronary artery calcium—a significant risk factor for heart disease —in athletes who ran fewer than 35 miles a week or cycled fewer than 100 miles a week. But the group who ran or cycled beyond that volume were found to have higher levels of coronary artery calcium than did the control group.
In addition to excess volume creating coronary artery issues, the study discovered an association between coronary calcium levels and exercise intensity. Compared with the control group, the study found significantly lower levels of coronary calcium in the men and women who exercised at lower intensities. In both men and women, coronary calcium levels rose as speed increased, and the fastest men had especially higher levels of coronary calcium.
Granted, the type of plaque found within the heavy exercisers was “dense” plaque, which opposed to soft plaque, may be somewhat less likely to rupture and cause a heart attack or stroke. But it was plaque nonetheless! So what does all this mean? Should you ditch your goal of running a marathon, and also stay far away from triathlons, the cycling tour of Italy you’ve always wanted to do, or long bouts on a treadmill at the gym?
While I’ve certainly acknowledged in my previous article on this topic that from a health and longevity standpoint (not necessarily a competitive and performance standpoint), there is a law of significantly diminishing returns and increased health risks when exercise exceeds about 90 minutes a day, I have a few additional, important observations for you based on this most recent date.
1) Diet Matters
Unfortunately many endurance athletes use the rigor of training and a speedy metabolism to justify a diet that is incredibly calorie dense (as it should be), but is also high in processed or sugar-laden foods. For example, common traditional foods for fueling endurance sports include high carbohydrate sources such as orange juice, bagels, cereal, crackers, bread, pasta, scones, and fruit smoothies. With the advent of commercialized sports nutrition, the dietary staples of an many endurance athletes now also include sports bars and cookies, gels, powders, gummy chews, and specially formulated “energy” drinks.