Two Fitness Disasters That Are Threatening Your Health

It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigor.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Finally, The New York Times has turned critical of cardiovascular endurance exercise and aerobics, the two big fitness trends of the last three decades. But they’re still missing the big picture. Cardio will not protect your heart, and aerobics makes your lungs shrink. These are not your best exercise strategies to get lean, and both accelerate several negative consequences of aging and cause other health problems.

“Whatever Happened to Jane Fonda in Tights?” was the title of one of two critical articles that recently ran in the Times. But instead of revealing the real problem with aerobics, it focused on aerobics instructors who developed joint injuries from too much jumping around.

Though overuse injuries are a common side effect of aerobic workouts, the real problem with aerobics is that it’s designed to keep you in your “aerobic zone.” And if you want to keep fat off without starving and extend your “healthspan” (the number of years you can remain active, vigorous, and self-reliant) by pumping up your heart and lungs, you have to exercise beyond your current aerobic capacity.

Move Beyond Aerobics and Train Your “High-Energy Output System”

Aerobic means “with oxygen.” So your aerobic metabolism combines oxygen with carbohydrate or fat to make energy. Because walking is not a strenuous activity, you have plenty of oxygen available to make enough energy to do it. That is why you could walk for hours.

But let’s say you start sprinting. You can’t sustain that high output of energy with oxygen alone. So that’s the point at which your anaerobic system kicks in. When you’re using both aerobic and anaerobic energy production, you’re training your high-energy output system. This is also known as “crossing your aerobic threshold.”

By exercising in your supra-aerobic zone and building your high-energy output system, you build your lung volume. When you push yourself to the point of needing to stop and pant, you’ve asked your lungs for more oxygen than they’re able to provide at that moment. That triggers your body to increase your lung volume to be better prepared for the next time it encounters that same challenge.

As I have said in the past, lung capacity is the best predictor of longevity – hands down. Simply stated, the bigger your lungs, the longer you live. Yet, unless we do something to prevent it, we all lose lung volume with age. By the time you’re 70, you’ve lost about 50 percent of your lung capacity.

That is why training your high-energy output system and signaling your body to build lung capacity is so critical. If all you do is aerobic exercise, you’ll make that loss even worse. At the end of the day, you’ll have two forces working against you: time and aerobic training.

For a Strong Heart, Heed This Lesson

Aerobics is not the only fitness disaster threatening your health. Duration cardio like jogging and treadmill workouts are probably worse.

There’s finally a body of clinical evidence to support what I’ve been telling my patients for two decades. Long-distance workouts – especially marathons – traumatize your heart and mimic the effects of heart disease. The New York Times took a step toward exposing this problem with an article called “Is Marathoning Too Much of a Good Thing for Your Heart?” But, as they did with their article on aerobics, they missed the big picture.

I began to investigate the dangers of durational workouts 20 years ago. During a marathon race where I was working at an emergency aid station, I saw two runners drop to their knees in cardiac distress.

In 2006 alone, at least six runners lost their lives in marathons in the U.S. In March, two police officers, one 53 years old and the other 60, died of heart attacks at the Los Angeles Marathon. Three runners in their early 40s all had fatal heart attacks during marathons in Chicago, San Francisco, and the Twin Cities. And at the October Marine Corps Marathon, a 56-year-old man collapsed at the 17-mile marker, never to recover.

We’re Finally Catching On to the Problem With Marathon Running

Dr. Arthur Siegel, director of internal medicine at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard University, has authored more than two dozen studies on runners of the Boston marathon.

For one of those studies, published in October 2001 in the American Journal of Cardiology, he drew blood samples from 80 middle-aged male runners – one sample just before, one sample immediately following, and a third sample the day after the marathon. The results: Twenty-four hours after the race, the men – none of whom had any history of heart disease – exhibited early-stage signs of cardiac damage similar to the symptoms that appear during a heart attack.

In a more recent study,  published in the November issue of Circulation, Dr. Siegel and his colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital tested 60 runners (41 men and 19 women) before and after the 2004 and 2005 Boston Marathons. Each runner had a cardiogram to look for abnormalities in heart rhythm. They were also checked for evidence of cardiac problems in their blood. Troponin, a protein found in cardiac muscle cells, was used as a marker of cardiac damage. If the heart is traumatized, troponin shows up in the blood. Its presence is also used to determine whether heart damage was sustained during a heart attack.

The runners had normal cardiac function before the marathon, with no signs of troponin in their blood. Twenty minutes after finishing, 60 percent of the group had elevated troponin levels and 40 percent had levels high enough to indicate the destruction of heart muscle cells. In addition, most had noticeable changes in heart rhythm.

Dr. Siegel said, “Their hearts appeared to have been stunned.” Bingo! During long-duration exercise, your heart is under constant stress with no time to recover. If it goes on long enough, your heart is traumatized and your body reacts by triggering a wave of inflammation.

Inflammation is a natural response by your body to initiate repairs. But if you trigger it recurrently and purposely as a result of exercise, you induce chronic inflammation of your heart and blood vessels – putting you on the fast track to heart disease. In fact, in The Doctor’s Heart Cure, I showed that inflammation, NOT cholesterol, is actually the leading mechanism of heart disease.

Dr. Siegel concluded that running a marathon causes injury to the skeletal muscles, which, in his words, “sets off a cascade of inflammation in the body.”

In a related study at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, men who had completed at least five marathons were given an advanced type of heart screening called a spiral CT scan, which measures the amount of calcium plaque buildup in the arteries. The researchers found that about 35 percent of the marathon runners had significant buildup in their arteries – indicating they were at higher risk for a heart attack. Only 22 percent of non-marathon runners in a control group had the same amount of blockage.

Sidestep This Trap and Exercise Naturally

You may think that running a marathon is good for you because it gives your heart endurance training that will keep it going far into your old age. But don’t forget that your heart was designed by nature to beat for a lifetime. So what it needs is not endurance training but a signal to build and maintain capacity. It’s that reserve of extra power that will help get it through times of stress that challenge maximal output and cause heart attacks.

You can build up your heart’s reserve capacity in as little as 10 minutes a day. By gradually increasing your exertion and following that with focused recovery – the basis of my PACE (Progressively Accelerating Cardiopulmonary Exertion) program – you build both your heart and your lung power.

Here is a simple starting program to grow your cardiopulmonary power by using an elliptical trainer. (You can substitute any exercise that challenges your heart and lungs.)

Set the trainer to manual and warm up for two minutes at 50 RPMs and a resistance level of 2. During your warm-up, gradually increase the speed to what feels like a 5 out of 10 exertion level. (For me, that’s about 75 RPMs.) Then increase the resistance by two levels every minute until you start to breathe hard or reach an 8 or 9 out of 10 exertion level. (For me, that means working up to a resistance level of about 14, which takes about five minutes. One minute at 4, one at 6, one at 8, one at 10, and one at 12.)

Now decrease the resistance to a level of 2 and watch as your heart rate recovers. If you’ve entered your supra-aerobic zone, your heart rate will continue to climb a bit during the first few seconds of this recovery period. That tells you your heart is paying back the oxygen debt you created, signaling your lungs to grow in capacity.

When you’ve recovered to a heart rate within 20 beats of the resting heart rate where you began, you’re done. Go hit the shower. Do this three times a week.

Remember, if you have medical problems, check with your doctor before starting any new exercise. And don’t forget the first principle of PACE: “progressivity.” Always start out easy and gradually increase your exertion, week by week.

[Ed. Note: Pump up your energy and productivity, start burning more fat, and protect your heart against heart attacks with Dr. Sears’ PACE program.]