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Dr. Campbell: Can too much running be bad for your health?

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Running regularly has long been linked to a host of health benefits including weight control, stress reduction and better blood pressure and cholesterol. However, recent research suggests there may a point of diminishing returns with running.

A number of studies have suggested that a "moderate" running regimen -- a total of two to three hours per week, according to one expert -- appears best for longevity, refuting the typical "more is better" mantra for physical activity.

The study, conducted by Dr. Martin Matsumura at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the Lehigh Valley Health Network, found high-mileage marathon runners and people who get no exercise both have shorter lifespans than moderate runners.

Matsumura and his colleagues evaluated data from more than 3,800 men and women runners with an average age of 46. They were involved in the Masters Running Study, a web-based study of training and health information on runners aged 35 and above. Nearly 70 percent reported running more than 20 miles per week.

Researchers say extreme, strenuous exercise can be damaging to the heart.

One researcher who reviewed the findings believes there may simply be "too much wear-and-tear" on the bodies of high-mileage runners. He has researched the issue and is an advocate of moderate running for the best health benefits. Chronic extreme exercise, O'Keefe said, may induce a "remodeling" of the heart, and that could undermine some of the benefits that moderate activity provides.

In the researcher’s view, the "sweet spot" for jogging for health benefits is a slow-to-moderate pace, about two or three times per week, for a total of one to two and a half hours.

Unfortunately, tragedy in marathon running has hit very close to home with the two deaths on Sunday in Raleigh.

One of the most common causes of death in runners during marathons is heart attack caused by underlying coronary artery diseases. These heart attacks are brought on by the combination of the intense physical stress of running for an extended duration and the pre-existing disease in the runner’s heart or a lack of cardiac fitness to handle the race.

Another common cause for sudden death during a marathon is undiagnosed congenital heart disease such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (this is the same thing that killed Hank Gathers of basketball fame). In this situation the patient is at risk for developing a dangerous heart rhythm called ventricular tachycardia. Without help with an AED or defibrillator, most die (with an AED survival is in excess of 70 percent)

For the most part, marathon running is quite safe. In fact, when data was collected from the London Marathon, the results were surprising. A study on London Marathon runners over a 20 year period found that with a rate of death of 1 in 67,414 (representing 1 in 2,000,000 miles run) marathon running was no more dangerous than many other daily activities. The four major circumstances that lead to marathon runner deaths appear to be: heart disease in runners over 35 years, genetic heart defects in runners under 35, low blood sodium levels, and heat related illnesses such as heat stroke.

To stay safe, marathoners and potential marathoners must consult with a MD prior to beginning the exercise and training. If they experience chest pain or shortness of breath, they should seek immediate evaluation. If you are running a marathon and experience symptoms, you should immediately consult race organizers for medical assistance.

Any time you have chest pain, lightheadedness or shortness of breath out of proportion to your level of fitness, you should seek medical evaluation.

In any marathon situation, a key to survival is having very responsive medical teams with access to resuscitation equipment--most importantly and AED (Automated External Defibrillator).

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