There is no proof too much exercise will kill you: health news is the worst

There’s been a piece of “reporting” going around saying that it’s possible to exercise oneself to death. The New York Post’s headline is “You can exercise yourself to death, says new study.” A bunch of articles share that title, or slight variations on it.  Short form: it’s bullshit.  Deep and highly piled bullshit.

The news “stories” is based on a paper that has been electronically distributed by The Mayo Clinic Proceedings titled 25-Year Physical Activity Trajectories and Development of Subclinical Coronary Artery Disease as Measured by Coronary Artery Calcium by Deepika R. Laddu, PhD, Jamal S. Rana, MD, PhD, etc. I’ve provided links so, y’know, you can read it, too, if you’re so inclined. I did.

The scientific paper does not say that people who exercise too much die earlier than those who get the recommended amount of exercise. It says, “White individuals who participated in 3 times the recommended [physical activity] guidelines over 25 years had higher odds of developing coronary subclinical atherosclerosis by middle age. These findings warrant further exploration, especially by race, into possible biological mechanisms for [coronary artery calcification] risk at very high levels of [physical activity].”

The report – again, if one reads it – says that the findings about the optimal amount of cardiovascular training are “undefined” and “controversial.”

Additionally, “recent studies in healthy, middle-aged, highly active adults have reported that higher doses of exercise were associated with higher levels of CAC and that the atherosclerotic plaques were, in fact, likely to be more calcified plaques, suggesting that the stable nature of coronary plaques in highly active individuals may mitigate plaque rupture.” Which is medical-ese for saying that the arterial plaque in highly active people is different than in inactive people and less dangerous.

Also – and this is all from the same damn report! – “a population-based cohort of nearly 75,000 nonelite-level Swedish skiers who participated in long-distance skiing races, those who finished more races (and presumably older and trained for more years) had lower mortality.”

At no point do the authors say that “too much exercise will kill you.” Indeed, they explicitly say that the evidence that “too much exercise” is bad for you is fraught with contradictions and uncertainties. They reference specific reports that indicate endurance athletes live long lives and one that says that intense joggers live no longer than people who don’t exercise (which strikes me as possible since running is easily the most intense form of cardio there is). They include references to articles that discuss why this might be so, that the overall benefits to health for endurance athletes outweigh the risks. They say that more study is needed to make decisions about what to do next.

But the headlines aren’t, y’know, “A lot of endurance exercise leads to subclinical arterial plaque which may or may not be a health issue, hey, we don’t know, yet, but anyway, you should definitely exercise.” The headlines are, “There is proof that too much exercise will kill you.”

There is no kind of reporting as debased as health reporting. It’s shockingly bad. Broadly speaking, trust no health journalism.

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