It is a commonly held belief that the fitter you are, the healthier you are. Is this so? Most experts agree that a certain level of fitness is required for health. However, this leads to several questions: What level of fitness qualifies as healthy? Can you be detrimentally fit? What is the equation for optimal fitness with optimal health? Assuming that the range of fitness runs from total couch potatoes to ultra-marathoners, how is one to determine an answer?
A recent study by researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmond, MA, analyzed the blood of marathoners less than 24 after the race finish and found abnormally high levels of inflammatory and clotting factors similar to the ones known to appear in heart attack victims. Dr. Arthur Siegel, director of Internal Medicine, and the study director said, “My concern is for people who exercise thinking ‘more is better’ and that marathon running will provide ultimate protection against heart disease. In fact, it can set off a cascade of events that may transiently increase the risk for acute cardiac events.”
Dr. Paul D. Thompson, director of cardiology at Hartford Hospital and also a marathon runner, weighed in on the topic: “There is concern and there should be. We know exercise reduces heart attacks. Research has shown it. But most of those studies are not based on distance runners running marathons.”
“Fitness does not necessarily equate to health. Optimal health is a combination of many things—both mental and physical. When mental or emotional stress levels are high, intense physical training may actually add to the body’s stress load, ” say Dian Griesel, Ph.D. and Tom Griesel, authors of TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat Burning Metabolism, Get Lean Fast and Leave Diet and Exercise Rules in the Dust (BSH, 2011).
Tom Griesel elaborates: “Over-training has a damaging effect on our delicate state of homeostasis. Too much exercise will tap into our lean body mass for energy and this causes stress which results in elevated levels of cortisol and other stress related hormones.”
According to Al Sears, MD, countless injuries can result because many of us add repeated “cardio” to our busy days to push for greater endurance or maybe even relieve stress. He says, “Our ancient ancestors never ran for long distances without rest. Maybe it happened rarely but never routinely. It doesn’t happen in the animal kingdom either.”
Walking may be the ideal exercise. “Walking interspersed with short 30-60 second bursts of running is exactly what we were designed to do and has a most beneficial effect on our heart and circulatory system. Anyone can do it. No special equipment or gym memberships are required,” recommends Dian Griesel, Ph.D. who wears a pedometer at all times to track her mileage.
The Griesel’s remind us that repetitious, monotonous, stressful activities are not requirements for fitness. Rather, they conclude “The search for fitness does not have to take over our lives to be effective. Mowing a lawn, housecleaning or a good game of tag or Frisbee with a group of others count as healthful ways to improve fitness. Maybe we all need to find ways to simply get active, instead of stressing ourselves with trying to run marathons.”