Athletes, myocardial fibrosis, scarring of the heart’s muscle
Lions Don’t Buy Nike Running Shoes
Have you ever seen lions running? You bet they run when they’re hungry and chasing prey. The only other time they exercise is at mating season when they’re having sex every 20 minutes! But most of the time they lay around or sleep. Exercise is simply not high on their priority list, and they survive well without buying Nike running shoes.
Questioning the value of exercise to humans, however, is like damning Motherhood and apple pie. But every year in my office I see examples of excessive exercise causing needless injury, and it results in many aggravating problems.
One of my 60 year old female patients decided it was time to build up muscles. So she hired a personal trainer. At each visit, she enthusiastically told me, her trainer praised her strength, and kept adding extra weights for her leg lifts. I advised her not to push her luck. But the weights kept piling on and on. Finally, something in her back snapped. Now she has a partially paralyzed left foot. She should have listened to the old sage who counseled, “Too much of anything can be worse than none at all”. I suggested timidly that, at her age, she wasn’t meant to be a weight lifter.
Another example of overuse is Olympic athletes. On TV screens they appear to be at the peak of physical form, lean, muscled and full of youth. But they all push themselves to extremes, playing through pain and often undergoing multiple operations due to injuries. And some end up with hips and knees like those of people twice their age.
Jordan Metzl, of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, says, “You see people 16 years of age with the bones of a 60 to 70 year old person”.
For instance, teenage gymnasts often experience a late puberty due to intense exercise and low body fat. By subjecting themselves to this routine before their bodies are fully developed can lead to lower bone density, osteoporosis and stress fractures.
Marcia Whalen, an osteopathic physician in California, and one of the physicians for the U.S. Women’s Olympic water polo team, says, “When you’re doing any kind of activity repetitively over and over the way these athletes are doing , it’s a set-up for injury”. It’s also a set-up for the rest of us who overdo it.
Myra Cocker, a researcher at the Stephenson Cardiovascular Centre in Calgary, has been using imaging techniques to study athlete’s hearts. It was hoped she and her colleagues would discover why some athletes in superb condition suffer sudden cardiac arrest and die. What they found was equally alarming.
48 Olympic caliber athletes with a mean age of 32 years were enlisted in the study. They were involved in swimming, cross country skiing, skating and marathon running. Contrast-enhanced cardiovascular magnetic resonance scans were then done on the athletes. In addition, the same study was carried out on eight others in good health, but who were not involved in a training schedule.
This study showed that 75 percent of the elite athletes had myocardial fibrosis (scarring of the heart’s muscle). They also had large ventricles (chambers of the heart). At the moment it’s not known what effect this finding will have on longevity. But they believe this scarring will prevent them from ever becoming world champions regardless of how hard they train. Just 13% of the control group had this condition.
Of course I’m not against moderate exercise when so many today are obese couch-potatoes. But I think Abraham Lincoln was right when he said, “The best two doctors are your right leg and your left leg”. Walking, a moderate exercise, is still the best one.
So who wins the race in terms of longevity and good health? I’d place my bet on someone who inherits good genes and who doesn’t ruin good joints and healthy hearts by overuse. My Mother entered her 94th year without ever running one block or doing one push up. But she was thin and active. I doubt that exercise would have added one week to her longevity. And I also don’t believe lions would live any longer if they wore Nike running shoes.
W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of Harvard. Dr. Walker’s website is: docgiff.com.
Dr. Walker can be reached at [firstname.lastname@example.org?bcc=letters@canadafree.