Do endurance athletes die young?

I was recently listening to a Joe Rogan podcast with Dorian Yates a 6 times Mr Olympia. During the podcast he said “it is a well known fact endurance athletes die younger than the general public.” Stating it’s from the years of prolonged exercise they do. 

Dorian Yates

Dorian Yates

Instead he recommends very short (4 minute) HITT style workouts.

To say this as a throw away comment, like it’s old news everyone knows is extremely irresponsible.

Firstly because it’s not true and second because this podcast was viewed over 1 million times on youtube alone. Thirdly because it seems a bit pot to kettle looking at the amount of bodybuilders dying young from excessive use of performance enhancing drugs, but that’s another topic in itself.

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

So does lots cardiovascular exercise really make you die younger? 

Should you stop all cycling, swimming, running, hiking and anything else that gets your heart rate up for over 4 minutes?

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

Armed with such information we can safely say yes 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. It turns out 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 and compare high level endurance athletes to their counterparts. If endurance exercise is bad for us, on average 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. 

Interestingly when they studied the longevity of 834 cyclists from France, Italy and Belgium 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. 

The major finding is that repeated very intense exercise prolongs life span. The researchers sum it up by saying “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 I found, Olympic rowers, another gruelling endurance sport, 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 a review of 14 studies exploring the mortality and longevity of elite athletes in various 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 on to 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 be heavier and in some sports can even be overweight without any negative performance side effects, but clearly there may be health side effects.

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! 

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.