To Your Health: Can Too Much Exercise Be Bad for You?

To Your Health: Can Too Much Exercise Be  Bad for You?

By Kathryn M. D’Imperio

Sports and exercise carry the spirit of competition proudly. Finishing well in a race or winning a match can also inspire us to push our limits, looking for that next “personal best.” Team sports, individual competitions, and the personal goals that we set for ourselves can all make living a healthy, active lifestyle even more exciting.

It seems we can almost always improve upon our recent athletic performances in some way – cutting a few seconds off our mile pace, swimming a few extra lengths, or adding some more weight to our strength training exercises. Noticing these continual improvements – a drop in pace or an overall stronger performance – can fuel a fire that pushes us to work harder, train longer, and strive for even greater results. But, is this healthy for the heart? How much exercise is too much?

Is It Possible to Get Too Much Exercise?

“If you’re talking about average daily practice in my cardiology office, none of my patients will ever get too much exercise,” says Dr. Jake Marais, general cardiologist at St. Luke’s University Health Network. “There’s a very small portion of people who can motivate themselves and attain that level of fitness. Purely based on data, I don’t think anyone can tell you too much exercise is a serious health concern.”

Dr. Marais says that even with serious endurance runners like those participating in marathons and other long, intense races, the only thing we know about is that these athletes may face an increased risk of atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat). High endurance athletes may develop cardiac remodeling, which is a change in the heart’s structure, size, or shape, and some degree of fibrosis, a type of scarring of the heart tissue, is also possible. Dr. Marais has seen an occasional runner in the Philadelphia Marathon suffer from a sudden cardiac arrest over the years. Still, evidence suggests no heightened risk for arrhythmias in these endurance athletes. A lot of it may simply boil down to an individual’s personal health condition and genetics as far as what level of exercise the body and heart can handle.

High endurance athletes may develop cardiac remodeling, which is a change in the heart’s structure, size, or shape, and some degree of fibrosis, a type of scarring of the heart tissue, is also possible.

“It comes down to common sense,” Dr. Marais says. “If you don’t typically run marathons, but you go out and run a couple miles and then try for a marathon, it’s bad news. If you train for a marathon with appropriate guidance within your abilities, a marathon is probably safe.”

“We should talk about how much exercise patients should be getting,” he adds. “That’s what I do every day.”

A Good Exercise Practice for Anyone: Walking

To ensure patient safety, Dr. Marais recommends that anyone with underlying diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease starting off in exercise should first seek out a medical evaluation before initiating any significant exercises or routines. In general, everyone should find the time to start walking, he says.

“Walking by far is the easiest form of exercise to get into,” he encourages. “Walking is also a cardiovascular protective exercise – the kind that improves outcomes and reduces cardiac events. It’s shown to improve resting heart rate, improve cholesterol values (reducing bad and raising good), and exercise is beneficial in diabetes.”

He advises walking a short distance for 30 minutes with decent endurance three times per week. This is something anyone can tolerate, even pregnant women. Those who are expecting should contact their obstetricians/gynecologists to learn of preferred peak heart rates, but walking can be a great option for safe exercise for mom and baby, as well as the whole family.

Children also need exercise, and with kids, it’s almost impossible to get too much. Daily exercise is vital, and one of the best routines may be for parents to commit to doing some type of exercise or activity with their kids each day after work.

“When I get home, I try to get my daughter out to play softball, baseball, tennis, or catch – not just for my own health, but to maintain that active lifestyle.”

More Tips for a Healthy Heart and an Active Lifestyle

In addition to finding the time to work out, stretching, warming up, and cooling down should become a regular part of the routine. This helps to keep the joints loose and can also help to reduce the rate of injury.

“Stretching is essential before any working out,” Dr. Marais says. “I’m a golfer – people may find it strange to do a five minute stretch, but your back, arms, waistline, everything gets stiff if you don’t stretch. Just from an agility standpoint, as we age we get stiffer. If you keep active and stretching, agility and flexibility are kept for years beyond.”

A good exercise regimen can greatly enhance one’s lifestyle, but it isn’t the only piece of the puzzle. A balanced diet can work wonders for one’s overall health and their heart, as well.

“I stress the importance of the Mediterranean diet,” Dr. Marais says. “It’s probably the only diet found to have cardiovascular protection, meaning it seems to reduce heart attacks.”

This diet encourages supplementing the diet with protein found especially in chicken and nuts, and replacing all saturated fats (found in margarine, vegetable oils, cookies, pastries) with an olive oil base. The Mediterranean diet offers benefits on cholesterol and from a cardiovascular standpoint.

For a healthy and active lifestyle, build an exercise routine that fits your personal health and fitness level. If you plan to run a marathon or to try another extreme distance and endurance sport, use common sense and make sure you give your body and its major organs the time to acclimate to a greater level of physical stress. See your doctor for a health evaluation if you aren’t sure what level of exercise is appropriate based on any underlying conditions you may have. Most of all, make exercise a fun part of everyday life that your whole family can enjoy.

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