Do endurance athletes die young?

I was Recently listening to a Joe Rogan podcast with 6 times Mr Olympia Dorian Yates. He said it is a well known fact endurance athletes die younger than the general public. Specifying it is from the years of constant strenuous exercise they do.

 

He instead recommends very short (4 minute) HITT style workouts.

 

It really frustrates me someones says this as such a throw away comment, like it’s old news everyone knows.

 

Firstly because it’s not true! Second because this podcast was viewed over 1 million times on youtube alone, who knows how many downloads it has also.

 

Although hopefully a lot of the people listening won’t take his word as gospel, if even 1% do. That’s still 10 thousand people who might fear all types of low intensity cardiovascular exercise for the rest of their lives.

 

So does endurance exercise really make you die younger? Should you stop all cycling, swimming, running, hiking and anything else that gets your heart rate up?

 

Everyone has probably heard of a friend of a friend who kept super fit, ran marathons, biked, and had a heart attack.

 

Armed with such information we can safety say yep endurance exercise does lead to heart attacks and early death, end of.

 

Actually let’s back up a little, because correlation doesn’t always equal causation.Heart disease is actually the second biggest cause of premature death behind cancer.

 

1 in 5 people die from heart disease and some people can be predisposed to higher risks from birth, especially if they have disorders like hemochromatosis or Familial hypercholesterolemia. It stands to reason then, if 1 in 5 people die from cardiovascular disease. Someone who exercises a lot, can and statistically should still be one of those people. Especially if you know enough people.(4)

 

Instead of going on anecdotal evidence, let’s look at the evidence on a larger scale. Let us compare high level endurance athletes to their counterparts. If endurance exercise is bad for us, we should see a strong trend towards shorter life span and more premature death.

 

If endurance exercise does cause endless damage to the body and make us die younger, extreme endurance athletes such as the Tour de France riders should be dropping like flies.

 

They perform some of the most brutal cardiovascular exercise ever. Riding through the alps for an average of 4 hours a day for over 3 weeks during competition.

 

If that isn’t brutal endurance exercise I don’t know what is. My first thought is they would die younger. The intensity they work at is insane.

What does the evidence say?

However when they studied the longevity of 834 cyclists from France, Italy and Belgium. All who rode the Tour de France between the years 1930 and 1964. The researchers found a very significant increase in average longevity (17%) for the cyclists when compared with the general population. The age at which 50% of the general population died was 73.5 vs. 81.5 years in Tour de France participants.

One of the Tour de France Stages

The major finding was repeated very intense exercise prolongs life span. The researchers sum it up with “our findings underpin the importance of exercising without the fear that becoming exhausted might be bad for one’s health”.(1)

 

Another study with French Tour de France cyclists from 1947-2012 period, observed 41% lower mortality in the cyclists compared with male counterparts.(2)

 

In the next study looking at Olympic rowers, another grueling endurance sport. One requiring multiple hours of training every day were compared to their general population counterparts.(3) Amazingly once again the rowers had a huge reduction in overall mortality (42%) compared to the general population.

 

Finally we have a review of 14 studies exploring the mortality and longevity of elite athletes. The study looks into various sports from aerobic and mixed sports (anaerobic and aerobic) to power based sports. The review found both aerobic and mixed sporting athletes to survive longer than the general population, as indicated by lower mortality and higher longevity. The study goes onto say “Lower cardiovascular disease mortality is likely the primary reason for their better survival rates”. (5)

 

Finally the review found mixed and inconsistent results for power based athletes. I feel this may be partly because power based athletes tend to heavier. In some sports they can even be overweight without any negative effects to performance.

To Summarise

To sum up I think we can safely say endurance athletes not only don’t die younger, on average they live longer, quite a lot longer! Exercise might actually be the fountain of youth everyone searches for.

 

In-fact i’d say the evidence is clear, cardiovascular exercise(CV) is actually protective and helps reduce the risk of early death and cardiovascular disease. Therefore is anyone tells you running, cycling or any CV based exercise is bad for you, please have my permission to slap them over the face with a wet fish.