Running For Your Life?

running,marathon, half marathon, cardio,endurance


The Running-Cardiovascular Disease Connection



Running never grabbed me, but I am lucky to say, that I am one of those people who has exercised consistently most of their lives. As a teen, I was sort of uncoordinated when it came to sports. I could not run or do a hairpin turn and dunk a basket. I wasn’t very fast so track and sprinting were out. In addition, my thighs rubbed together and it made running and sprinting rather uncomfortable. At a weight of 180 lbs. (at 15 years old), it was also pretty clear that I was also not going to have my picture in the year book with pompoms’ in my hand.

I just didn’t have what it took to excel in anything having to do with human performance. At least, in my opinion. I would prove myself wrong.

After tipping the scales at 223 lbs. after my daughter Andrea was born (1981), I took a very serious look at my weight and my health, and I decided that I was going to get healthy and fit and finally reach my goal weight. I set a goal to exercise every day. With the determination and perseverance of an athlete ,I stayed true to my commitment to myself. I set very clear goals and held myself accountable. After about two weeks, I felt like Wonder Woman. It was getting easier!

Over several months, the training effect kicked in and my endurance improved. I was having a blast. I was happy to have said goodbye to my last 30 lbs. of fat! This “aerobics” thing took me over and I never wanted to stop. It was a far cry from my days in the middle school gym. When the newest gym opened up in town in 1983, I felt confident to join. My favorite class was a hybrid aerobic/weight workout. It was several minutes of high intensity aerobics with frequent intervals of lowering the heart rate, and using weights for toning. All to the beats of the 1980’s. “Pure heaven!” lol. It was a “high intensity interval” workout before that name was ever tagged to it.

My execution and form caught the attention of my instructor Kelly, and I would find myself as an example in front of the class frequently. Then it happened. She asked me to fill in for her because she could not attend the class on a particular night. She was confident that I could rock it. That was it. This was the one thing in life I was truly good at. Her comment was “you should become an instructor.”  No set of pompoms or picture in the yearbook could match the pride I felt at that moment.

Without further adieu, I attended school and I got my professional credentialing. The aerobic movement was exploding and Jane Fonda and a doctor named Kenneth Cooper M.D quickly became household names. For those of you not familiar with Dr. Cooper, he introduced the concept of “aerobics” and everyone was following his guidelines.

Sustained endurance exercise was on the map and it showed no signs of slowing down. Running absolutely exploded!

I, like so many others, had the “more is better” mentality when it came to exercise. I was walking my same 5 miles most days. Just because I could. In addition, I spent 8 hours in a gym. 5 hours out of 8 hours was spent exercising. There was a time when I would teach (3) 1-hour classes in a day. Mostly of the aerobic variety. About two hours additionally was spent weight training. I gained 16 lbs. of muscle over the years and kept my body fat in the teens. I must have had stellar heart health right?

I am an avid follower of the science, and I came upon an article that would change my mind about endurance based exercise forever. It was at this time that evidence was just coming to light that too much endurance exercise, especially running and chronic cardio, contributed to having and enlarged heart and arrhythmias and atherosclerosis. The findings were also showing greater inflammation and also a higher risk of arterial plaque. This was long before we recognized that inflammation is at the heart of most every disease. We hear this all the time: A young, “healthy”, athlete is suddenly struck down with a cardiac event. How could this be true? This was supposed to be the “fountain of youth” for the heart and the vascular system. These stories made the headlines not because of the volume of incidents, but rather the coincidental nature that most all were endurance athletes.

I gave all of this some very serious thought (and much more time researching), and found that this advice was in fact; sound. I would take the very same advice to heart, that I would be giving to my clients. My dedication was to my overall health and well-being. Being OPTIMAL means that if something is not enhancing your health and genetics, it must be re-evaluated. It was time to rework the plan. My co-workers consequently, started racking up injuries. Back problems, knee problems, shin splints oh my! We were all in our mid-thirties and should have been in the best shape of our lives.

To stop “aerobicizing” was like asking an alcoholic not to drink. The clients who heeded my advice the least were the runners. Most people did not heed the warning and continued on their pace. Many I knew were running marathon after marathon with no signs of slowing down. If you are a runner (or you know one), you could ask them “Which one would you rather have happen? Would you prefer to die a horrible and painful death OR would you rather stop running? Death was the number one answer. Let’s face it; most runners don’t stop running. They modify it. Even if they can no longer do it very well due to injuries, they will just tape themselves together and hit the road.

I often want to stop some runners who I see doing long distances around my community. I see their knees supported with bracing while kinesiology tape runs down the side of their legs like racing stripes. I guess it’s like a badge of honor for the wounded in battle. What I think is important to understand, is that although I thoroughly understand the high that comes with this type of exercise (perhaps more than most), but his is where the rubber meets the road from a wellness perspective. Let me cut to the chase:

You can be optimal without running distance or training endurance, however; you cannot run distance and train for endurance and be optimal.

Just as light and darkness cannot exist at the same time.  Long bouts of endurance training like running, and true optimal wellness are not possible to obtain simultaneously.

Ask yourself this: Is an exercise beneficial for me if I have to wear a (brace, strap, wrap, tape) ____________________ (insert support of your choice here) to continue doing it?

Cardio is getting a ton of unflattering press lately. Perhaps you may not have noticed or, you are so addicted  that you will convince yourself that “this cannot possibly be true.”  Many have turned a deaf ear. Even the most recent research done at the Harvard School of Public Health (2014), shows that both weight training and cardio combined, have the best benefits all around. What about also managing blood sugar and maintaining a healthy body weight overall? It was strength training cardio again however, “the definition of “cardio” , the beneficial kind has changed. High intensity interval workouts (HIIT), Burst Training style workouts are helping people to do so much more than that. This is what is now being recognized as the “NEW” cardio guidelines.

So the question becomes: “What type/amount/duration/ of endurance exercise is beneficial, and when do we stop receiving benefits? Before I answer that question, let’s look at the findings on the effects of chronic cardio on the cardiovascular system.

Here is a quote from a Mayo Clinic study (Proc. 2012 Jun; 87(6): 587–595) titled” Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise”

“Most long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathologic structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries. Emerging data suggest that chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons, ironman distance triathlons, and very long distance bicycle races, can cause transient acute volume overload of the atria and right ventricle, with transient reductions in right ventricular ejection fraction”

There is no way you can interpret this as a good thing to do that would enhance your biology. So I stopped. All I could thing about were these facts:

Runners, or those who engage in long cardiovascular endurance workouts:

Have a higher level of arterial plaque formation (much of it the softer kind that breaks off to form clots.

Have greater inflammation and higher inflammatory markers (hsCRP) High sensitivity C-Reactive protein.

Are at increased risk of cardiac events such as arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke, heart enlargement and thickening.

Suffer from one or more musculoskeletal injuries.

Eat a diet high in dietary carbohydrates (know to cause inflammation).

So now let me share my personal story:

In 2000 I was diagnosed with not one, but TWO arrhythmias. This was tested after 16 years of  doing chronic cardio. I had symptoms for a long time that no primary care doc thought was of concern. It was quite the contrary. One arrhythmia led to a pacemaker in 2005 and the other led to another procedure in 2014 to correct a very fast ventricular beat. It is important to note that none of these issues are part of my family history. We have no heart disease of this kind in my family. Also in 2015 I was told that I have atrial fibrillation. Tachycardia  in young athletes.

This can be a deadly arrhythmia for which there is no cure.  Only management and puts me at greater risk for stroke and blood clots. Was there some family history that I missed? How did this happen? Then a test run by my doctor also discovered that I had arterial plaque formation over and above what I should have had for my age and  elite fitness level. My heart rate most of the time was about 40bpm.  That was the last day I ever had a workout last over 30 minutes. I have completely traded exercising “harder” for exercising smarter. So let’s talk about “intelligent exercise” like interval training and strength training and the benefits you can get from making the switch. I never take something away without giving something in return. ; )

For those just starting out or those who are injured, an interval walk is a great way to just get started with this type of training. You can chose the ratio of hard work to easy pace. A good pattern would be to walk for 3 minutes casually and then for 30 to 45 seconds sprint until you are taxed. The idea is to get breathless enough that you must slow down. You can slow down for a minute or two if you recover quickly, or take 3 more minutes. It’s your body, listen to it. You repeat these two steps for 15 to 20 minutes. That’s all it takes! Want even better news? Benefits can be show with only two session per week if done correctly. What is nice is that you can change it up as your fitness improves.

Once you get rolling with the walk/run/walk format, you can then add some of these exercises below in place of the “run” portion. HIIT can be performed on a bike, an elliptical trainer or the stairs in your house. No equipment is needed.

Dr Axe Burst Trainer beginner

If you are diabetic, pre-diabetic or have a hard time managing your blood sugar, science has just let you off the hook with long bouts of cardio! There is not any person out there who can say that they cannot spare (2) fifteen minute time frames weekly to fit this in. This is your “Get out of insane diets and heavy cardio” free card. Step into the new paradigm shift of how exercise affects your genetics and metabolic processes, and not how calories might affect your weight. Calories have little to do with anything. A calorie is nothing more than unit of measurement of what is needed to heat 1 kilogram of water to 1 degree Celsius. Period. It has little bearing on weight loss.

I will pat those of you on the back who are using apps to track calories for the simple fact that you are at least tracking something.  Shift from tracking calories to tracking carbohydrates in grams. Eat a whole food diet with lots of veggies, plenty of fiber, lean and clean protein and lots of  healthy fats. Avoid processed food, gluten and industrial seed oils. Add HIIT and remove outside estrogenic influences like BPA and other chemicals from your environment and your body can begin to naturally heal and balance itself. Weight loss will be a side benefit.  So will blood sugar regulation.

The bottom line is this: Chronic cardio is a risk to your health. Something I loved so much almost destroyed me. We are supposed to love and respect our bodies and this is the hugest form of insult to this body of ours and damage will last for  decades. You can much better manage any chronic disease with this plan of action.

REASONS TO TRY HIIT (Interval Training)


interval training

Fitness group planking in park on a sunny day
Fitness group planking in park on a sunny day

Since HIIT increases levels of blood glycerol and free fatty acids (suggesting an early breakdown of triglycerides). If you have high triglycerides, this is your exercise.

Growth hormone may increase up to 10 times above baseline.

Decreased human growth hormone symptoms can include loss of muscle and an increase body fat. Physical mobility can suffer and energy levels decline. Low levels of growth hormone slow the healing process and put us at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and lower life expectancy. When growth hormone declines, so does our quality of life.

We grow our size and number of mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis)

Mitochondria are what synthesize ATP. This translates into improved cardiovascular capacity at any level of exercise intensity.” It also means more energy even when not exercising. It’s like a bank account. You can only take out what you put in. When it comes to having more energy every day, we need to synthesize and optimize ATP or, Adenosine triphosphate. According to the WIKI definition, it is the “molecular unit of currency”. Need energy? Just make more ATP.

And when it comes to enhanced glucose metabolism according to Boutcher (2011) and Kessler et al. (2012) who comprehensively reviewed studies investigating the effect of HIIT on improving insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism. The data indicated that insulin sensitivity can be improved 23% to 58%. Metabolic Effects of HIIT

Got cardiovascular disease? The endothelium is the layer of cells which line our vessels. Blood vessels should be somewhat “pliable” so they can easily expand and contract. HIIT is showing it does exactly this. Running on the other hand, is causing plaque to form that hardens the arteries. This tells us that HIIT is good not only for our hormones, but for our blood pressure and vascular health. It is the way we mammals were intended to exercise.  Short bouts of intensity.  Lifting heavy things.  Pretty elementary.

Now to add some body fat burning icing on this cake. Do this in a fasted state and you amplify the results! When I say “in a fasted state” I don’t mean that you go an entire day without eating. This just means that after your 8 hours of sleep and on an empty stomach before breakfast. To sum it up for you, you burn fat much faster  in a fasted state than by consuming carbohydrates before the workout. This is cardinal mistake some people make. They carb up before a workout. Your body will use carbs if you give it carbs.  If you give it nothing it will use what little sugars may be stored in muscle tissue and then start burning fat.

Reconsidering what we deem “healthy” exercise is critical to reversing disease and not causing it. By doing shorter, more efficient workouts we save time, improve health outcomes,lower cortisol, burns fat and increases hormones.  Life optimized, one interval at a time.  Run for your life! At a comfortable pace, and not too far: James O’Keefe at TEDxUMKC   

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