It’s widely accepted that physical exercise offers vast benefits from improved cardiovascular health and disease prevention to improved athletic performance. Every once in a while, however, researchers are stumped by anomalies that appear to challenge that prevailing belief. Many of these anomalies occur among elite athletic populations who many assume to possess the lowest risk of disease and disability.
For instance, in a recent presentation to the American College of Cardiology it was reported that long-distance runners may have a higher risk for coronary plaque build-up. Calcified plaque in the coronary arteries is, of course, the primary mechanism responsible for heart attacks.
Researchers measured the volume of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries of 25 long-distance runners and 23 symptomatic heart patients using computed tomography angiography or CT scan. The runners had raced at least one marathon per year for 25 years.
Surprisingly, the volume of calcified plaque in the arteries of long-distance runners was 60% greater than the symptomatic controls, although there were no symptoms amongst any runners. Researchers speculate that long-term systemic inflammation may be responsible as a consequence of frequent vigorous exercise. What does this mean for elite marathoners?
Although this study might result in speculation that excessive endurance exercise results in higher disease risk, there are other factors to consider; the primary factor being lower mortality amongst long-distance runners. However, this information could be useful to long-distance runner who might now focus on managing inflammation better through nutrition and supplementation.
Schwartz J, et al (2010) Does long-term endurance running enhance or inhibit coronary artery plaque formation? A prospective multidetector CTA study of men completing marathons for least 25 consecutive years. American College of Cardiology. 1271-330.