Death By Exercise???

Recently my mother-in-law sent me an article entitled; “Heart attacks of the mega-fit: how safe is extreme sport?” with the sub-heading of: “We don’t just go for a jog any more – we train for a marathon, following in the footsteps of the greats. But when top athletes collapse from heart failure, we start to wonder: how safe is this growing culture of extreme sport?”.

The catalyst of this suggestive headline was the early and tragic death of Dean Mercer, a triathlete and winner of the World Oceanman series and the Coolangatta Gold. Mercer had suffered an acute cardiac arrest on his way home from an early morning training session at a local surf club.

I am always bemused that when someone dies running a marathon it makes the news, but the overweight, stressed-out alcoholic who has a heart attack at home is nothing to be concerned about. The comments from the article range from those using Mercer’s death as an excuse to be lazy (at least that's the way I read their ideas but I'm a cynic), to the undertone of; "good god we must protect these endurance athletes from themselves,”. The most interesting concept discussed was that Mercer was completing endurance events as a health based activity compared to the performance based ritual of self-gratification. The myopic "health-based" view of aerobic/endurance activity is always amusing.

I will bypass discussing the enlarged athlete's heart since, for most of us, there's nothing to be done about it now: too late. But I immediately seize the idea that athletes do their sport or train for it with health as the objective. I submit that many people do sport or train to tame demons, to measure themselves against their fellow man or to compare their current and former selves, to prove what is possible when one doesn't get crushed beneath the wheel of somnolence and routine and the status quo, etc etc.

 

I digress, the article did completely turn its viewpoint around when they brought in an actual expert, Dr Andre La Gerche, the leader of sports cardiology at the Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute; who expressed that he has no idea what had happened to Mercer, or what specific factors were at play in his "cardiac event". No one does.

My mother-in-law’s response to this; “I guess my takeaway is that people should get themselves checked by a doctor before undertaking those sorts of activities?”

My response: I am more concerned with testing the overweight/works stressful job/too many hours/hypertensive/smoker/poor diet/high cholesterol/inactive individual(s). All of which have been proven multiple times by different peer reviewed research to be major risk factors to cardiovascular health – and all are gradual processes; much like training for an endurance event.

I imagine Mercer had been training and competing in endurance events for years, potentially decades. He didn’t (and couldn’t) just wake up one day and decide to complete a triathlon.

If Mercer had smoked, or was overweight and sedentary (or did any of the above mentioned things that do cause heart disease/failure) they would most likely have been accepted as the reason as to why he died and no one would be questioning whether or not he should have been tested before smoking/eating terribly/over working/not exercising as these are lifestyle choices… much like training for an endurance event.

The heart is like any other muscle and the more we work it positively (exercise) the stronger and more efficient at pumping blood around our bodies it becomes. A stronger heart has to beat less to pump blood (stronger pump = more blood per beat) therefore less stress is placed on the heart every moment of our lives (See: Eustress Vs. Distress).

Mercer may have had an underlying heart condition that could have been his cause of death. Where if he smoked or drank excessively or was overweight no one would have bat an eye when he died.

Here is a list of things that have been proven to prevent heart disease/failure:

  • Don’t Smoke
  • Maintain a healthy weight (achieved via physical activity and healthy eating)
  • Manage your blood cholesterol (achieved via physical activity and healthy eating)
  • Manage your blood pressure (achieved via physical activity, healthy eating and having a non-distressful lifestyle)
  • Manage diabetes (achieved via physical activity and healthy eating)
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Look after your mental health (See: Exercise for Mental Health)

In summary; exercise, don't smoke, drink responsibly, don't eat processed foods, limit stressors in the workplace and at home etc etc.

It is a terrible tragedy that Mercer died so young, but more so it’s a tragedy that we are more concerned with the wellbeing of endurance athlete’s health and not the thousands of inactive overweight people who are truly at risk of heart disease and/or failure.




Alex Greenwood
Alex Greenwood

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