A study reported on by the New York Times found that intense exercise—of the type done by Olympians and other elite athletes—doesn’t lead to long-term heart damage. This study’s findings shed welcome light on a hot issue in the field of exercise science: whether too much exercise can actually harm us. The debate was sparked, in part, by a 2012 Belgian study that found endurance athletes had enlarged right ventricles that didn’t function as well as their left ventricles both immediately after a marathon and a week later. However, the new study’s authors suspected the Belgian research may have fallen short—literally, by not looking at the long-term consequences of intense exercise. They speculated that, while short-term damage to the heart might happen, that damage could be more akin to muscle soreness that would resolve over time. And, indeed, this is what they found.
They came to this conclusion by recruiting 33 elite male athletes from ages 30 to 60 who exercised around 17 hours weekly. They also recruited another group of 33 men of similar age, height, and weight, but who weren’t very physically active. The researchers then compared the two groups by subjecting them both to a series of tests to measure heart function. They found that:
Compared to the non-athletes, the elite athletes did have larger right and left ventricles, but this didn’t impair the heart’s function.
In fact, the elite athletes had a lower average resting heart rate—one measure of cardiac health. They also showed no scarring, which would mean long-term damage, or symptoms of atrial fibrillation (irregular heart beat that can lead to an increased risk of stroke).
So, enjoy watching your favorite elite athletes without worry! According to this latest research, these exceptional athletes aren’t harming their hearts, and might even be improving their long-term heart health.
Source: New York Times