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Can Too Much Exercise Be Harmful?

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerFebruary 9, 2018
Can Too Much Exercise Be Harmful

Since the 1950s, activity and the health benefits associated with working up a sweat have been recommended by physicians and scientists across North America. However, according to a report published by Time, a new study suggests that rigorous fitness enthusiasts “may have a higher-than-average risk of coronary artery calcification… which is a buildup of calcium in the artery walls of the heart.”

While this study definitely raises cause for concern, the report concludes that “the vast majority of people… don’t need to worry about overdoing it.”

The Effects of Too Much Exercise

The study is very clear in explaining that the results only applied to a focus group of people who exceeded the national physical activity guidelines, which recommend 150 minutes of exercise per week.

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According to the report, “those who hit the gym for longer than 7.5 hours per week — three times more than guidelines call for — had a 27% higher risk of developing CAC [coronary artery calcification] by middle age. White men in that category were particularly at risk; they had an 86% higher chance of CAC. About 40% of people who exercised the most developed any amount of calcification after 25 years.”

These results were corroborated by a previous study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine entitled “Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects from Excessive Endurance Exercise.” This study found that “chronic extreme exercise training and competing in endurance events can lead to heart damage and rhythm disorders.” Chronic training includes activities such as:

  • Ironman distance triathlons
  • Long-distance bicycle races
  • Marathons
  • Ultra-marathons

It is important to note that the study reveals “this concept is still hypothetical and there is some inconsistency in the reported findings.” In addition to this, there is also conflicting data that suggests “lifelong vigorous exercisers generally have low mortality rates and excellent functional capacity.”

The Reality of Senior Excercise

What does this research actually mean for the average person?

Dr. Deepak Bhatt, executive director of interventional cardiovascular services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who was quoted in the Time article, “this [study] doesn’t apply to 99% of people… most people are not getting into this range of exercise. The problem in the U.S. is the exact opposite, that most people are getting nowhere near the recommended amount of exercise.”

The study also doesn’t determine if a heightened risk of coronary artery calcification causes heart issues for extreme athletes the way it does in more sedentary people. Just because it is there, does not necessarily mean it is causing a problem.

At this point in time with the information at hand, there seems to be no reason to change your lifestyle and reduce the amount of weekly exercise you get. In fact, The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that when it comes to exercise:

“More time equals more health benefits” and that “if you go beyond 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity, you’ll gain even more health benefits.”

The Physical Activity That Seniors Need

Physical activity is a great way to improve heart health, strengthen bones and muscles and reduce cognitive decline and depression. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advise that adults 65 years of age and older get regular physical activity in order to prevent health problems and remain capable of performing “day-to-day activities without becoming dependent on others.”

The CDC recommends a mix of aerobic activity (or cardio) and muscle strengthening activities.

Cardio is comprised of any kind of moderate or vigorous activity that “gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster,” including:

Strength training is made up of activities that strengthen your major muscle groups, including:

  • Doing exercises that use your body weight for resistance (push ups, sit ups)
  • Heavy gardening (digging, shoveling)
  • Lifting weights
  • Working with resistance bands
  • Yoga

Ideally, an average senior should have at least two hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week and musclestrengthening activities on two or more days a week; and if an older adult cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions, the World Health Organization suggests they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

Studies have found that extreme exercise may be a cause for concern and lead to health risks for a certain group of individuals, however, Time reports that “overall exercise is generally good — not bad — for the heart, and people typically need more of it — not less.” Like everything in life, moderation is key.

How often do you exercise each week? Were you surprised to see that too much exercise could potentially be harmful? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
Kimberley Fowler

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