Running is good for your health, especially your heart. Long-distance running boasts a variety of health benefits, including improvements to heart health. However, new research published in April’s Missouri Medicine is showing that extreme long-distance running can, over the years, become too much of a good thing.
Researchers Robert S. Schwartz, MD of the Minneapolis Heart Institute and James O’Keefe, MD of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City found long-term participating in marathon racing and training can be associated with increased coronary plaque volume.
The study examined men who had been marathon runners for 25 years. These runners had 62 percent more plaque buildup than men who were sedentary but were otherwise similar to the runners.
This is a phenomenon some are referring to as “runner’s plaque.” Plaque in the coronary artery can lead to serious health complications, which comes as a surprise to those who rely on running, especially long-distance, as a means to heart health.
“Years of extreme exercise effort appear to erase some benefits you get from moderate exercise, so that your risk of heart disease, of dying of coronary disease, is the same as a sedentary person,” O’Keefe in an interview.
The increased plaque comes in two forms: hard, or calcified, plaque and soft, fatty plaque. Of the two, the soft plaque is more dangerous as it is more likely to rupture and cause a heart attack.
Of course, some physical activity is better than none, and those involved in the study caution against using its results as a reason for people to give up long-distance running.
Research has shown that running 15 to 20 miles a week provides the best health benefits. If running isn’t your thing, walking, anywhere from two miles a day to 40 miles a week, can be just as beneficial. Ultimately, the key is to get up and go, just do it in moderation.