Extreme exercise may help you live longer without stressing your heart


Running is generally associated with good health outcomes

Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

It has been suggested that too much extreme exercise can be damaging to our health, but researchers have now found that people who can run a mile in less than 4 minutes generally live several years longer than would otherwise be expected.

Regular exercise is important for heart health, but too much strenuous activity has been linked to harmful cardiac outcomes.

“During really intensive or prolonged bouts of endurance exercise like running or cycling, some proteins are released that suggest injury may have happened to the heart,” says Stephen Foulkes at the University of Alberta in Canada.

To learn more about the effects of exercise, Foulkes and his colleagues looked at the lifespans of the first 200 athletes who were recorded running a mile (1.6 kilometres) in less than 4 minutes.

The athletes were all men born between 1928 and 1955. They included British neurologist and athlete Roger Bannister, the first person in the world to be recorded running a sub-4-minute mile, 70 years ago this week.

Sixty of the runners had died by December 2023, with an average lifespan of 73. The surviving runners were 77 years old, on average.

When accounting for where and when each athlete was born, the team calculated that the sub-4-minute milers outlived the general population by 4.7 years on average.

Those who ran their first sub-4-minute mile in the 1950s specifically lived more than nine years longer than the general population, while those who achieved the feat in the 1960s and 1970s lived 5.5 and 3 years longer, respectively.

That might be because the general population has become healthier over time, says team member Mark Haykowsky, also at the University of Alberta.

The findings suggest that extreme exercise may not be as harmful as previously thought. “These athletes build such a high-capacity system in their hearts, lungs, blood vessels, muscles and immune systems that it may be that they can recover really well from the normal stresses of day-to-day life,” says Foulkes.

But Thijs Eijsvogels at Radboud University in the Netherlands says that these results alone don’t really challenge the “extreme exercise hypothesis” – the idea that long-term, high-intensity exercise can have negative effects on the heart.

“They tested whether super-fit individuals had a different mortality risk compared to the general population,” he says, but it could be that people with less extreme exercise regimens have different or even better outcomes.

Topics:

  • exercise/
  • diet and exercise