Running from Health: The Perils of Jogging
Running from Health: The Perils of Jogging
In my book, Misguided Medicine, I dedicate an entire chapter to the modern jogging movement. The chapter starts with the storied run of Pheidippides, who ran all the way from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver the message that they had won the war.
Apparently, he died moments later.
I joke in my book that the death of Pheidippides revealed to the world the dangers of marathon running and how this should have been the first and last marathon. As over 500 marathons are run per year throughout the world, this is obviously not the case. I then went on to discuss the research regarding excessive running and the detriments to health that ensue from such wear and tear on the body. Excessive long-distance running also appears to give the heart a pounding and can leave it unable to function properly later in life.1–4 As I discuss in my book, many runners would even test positive for a heart attack if they were presented to the emergency room shortly after running the Boston Marathon.
Many agreed with my comments regarding the health issues of running and many did not. In fact, judging by their responses, I would say that a group of people passionately disagreed with me. A frequent comment that I would receive was:
“Running excessively is better than not running at all.”
I received dozens of comments like this one quite regularly. The question remains whether this is the case…
Is Excessive Running Better than no Running at All?
A recent article helps to answer this question and common criticism of my book. The Journal of the American College of Cardiology published findings from the Copenhagen City Heart Study this month. In the study, 1,098 healthy joggers and 3,950 healthy non-joggers were prospectively followed since 2001.5 The author line includes the cardiologist Dr. James O’Keefe, one of the leaders in medicine, who promotes eating and exercising like our ancestors. Their results may be shocking to many runners out there.
How Much Running is Enough?
The group compared sedentary non-joggers with joggers by assessing how long and how often they ran per week. They found that when compared with sedentary individuals, those who ran 1-2.4 hours per week had the lowest mortality, with a 71% reduction. Those who ran once per week also had a similar reduction in mortality, with those who ran 2-3 times per week not far behind.
Finally, they divided joggers into light, moderate, and strenuous runners. Their findings revealed that the light joggers had nearly an 80% reduction in mortality with an insignificant reduction in mortality for moderate joggers. Strenuous joggers had double the risk of death, though this was not statistically significant.
However, most interesting was the fact that while light and moderate joggers had lower mortality than sedentary non-joggers, strenuous joggers appear to “have a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group.” In other words, excessive jogging may be no different than not jogging at all. In fact, with all the wear and tear that occurs with excessive running, some could argue that it may actually be worse. For those who do run, once a week at a slow pace may be best, and at most, 2-3 times per week for no longer than 2.4 hours.
This data adds to the large amount of studies revealing the harmful aspects of long-distance and excessive running.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)
In this well-written book, Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris discuss how and why people make wrong or poor choices and continue to rationalize them. People, when faced with the obvious fact that they are wrong, have two options: fix the issues or dig deeper to try to rationalize their decision. Most people go with the latter. For instance, when people with a strong political view were given information that strongly disputed their view, their beliefs actually strengthened.6
I believed in many common “healthy” dogmas, only to find that they were destroying my body. It took me a while to convince myself that I had been wrong for so long. I often get the same response from certain committed exercise groups when studies show that their activities may not be the healthiest. I think that for the hardcore runners out there, it is likely going to take some time and frustration for this realization to set in.
Healthy Mistakes and Cognitive Dissonance
Excessive running may just be one of the many misguided lifestyle habits that extremely healthy people engage in with the goal of being healthy. I have had my fair share of views that I believed to be healthy, and begrudgingly continue to attempt to peel them away to this day.
Trainers, coaches, meatheads, and even physicians, who were not all well-researched, continually imposed a plethora of “health” recommendations upon me throughout my childhood of playing sports. It took me quite some time to peel away the layers of wrong information and increase the right during my personal health journey. Many are starting to peel away at the healthy running myth as they read the strong data supporting the detriments of long-distance running. Yes, many turn to denial first, but eventually the data begins to speak for itself.
The other point here is that being active is clearly the healthiest approach, as long as it is in moderation and does not excessively pound on the body. The fact that long, hammering runs are likely unhealthy should be welcomed by many since it means that we would no longer need to engage in grueling exercise regimens that eat away at our bodies and free time throughout the week.
Moving (Running) Forward
A tibia that feels like braille from dozens of shin splints, multiple herniated disks in my spine, a torn ACL and MCL, a broken tibia, multiple broken toes that are unable to bend, and a knee that throbs nearly every day continually remind me of my “healthy mistakes.” Nowadays, I always try to ensure that I am following a lifestyle that promotes my global health, though often I still miss the mark.
Many runners out there are doing the same. Unfortunately, a lot of us have been spoon-fed universal health recommendations that mean well, but are wrong. The silver lining is that with the explosion of health and exercise research, we have the tools to change these misguided behaviors.
Is running excessively better than not running at all? According to this study above, no, but we still do not have a definitive answer. Clearly being active is better than being sedentary, and I’ll leave it at that.
To Your Health,
Dr. Colin Champ
Dr. Colin Champ is a practicing radiation oncologist and nutritional expert. He is the author of Misguided Medicine: The truth behind ill-advised medical recommendations and how to take health back into your hands” You can hear more from him as the host of the incredibly popular Caveman Doctor podcast.
1. Wilson M, O’Hanlon R, Prasad S, et al. Diverse patterns of myocardial fibrosis in lifelong, veteran endurance athletes. J Appl Physiol. 2011;110(6):1622-1626. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01280.2010.
2. Neilan TG, Januzzi JL, Lee-Lewandrowski E, et al. Myocardial Injury and Ventricular Dysfunction Related to Training Levels Among Nonelite Participants in the Boston Marathon. Circulation. 2006;114(22):2325-2333. doi:10.1161/circulationaha.106.647461.
3. Trivax JE, Franklin BA, Goldstein JA, et al. Acute cardiac effects of marathon running. J Appl Physiol. 2010;108(5):1148-1153. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01151.2009.
4. Lysholm J, Wiklander J. Injuries in runners. Am J Sports Med. 1987;15(2):168-171. doi:10.1177/036354658701500213.
5. Schnohr P, O’Keefe JH, Marott JL, Lange P, Jensen GB. Dose of Jogging and Long-Term Mortality. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;65(5):411-419. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.11.023.
6. Nyhan B, Reifler J, Ubel PA. The hazards of correcting myths about health care reform. Med Care. 2013;51(2):127-132. doi:10.1097/MLR.0b013e318279486b.