RUN TO HEALTH
(OR BETTER YET, SPRINT TO HEALTH)
But how can this be? Everyone has always been taught that Resistance Training (weightlifting) is what bulks people up, but that "Cardio" (swimming, biking, etc --- but particularly running / jogging) is what you do if you want to LOSE WEIGHT. The reality is that this idea has been on the way out for at least two decades. Cardio training is not the best or fastest way to lose weight or get in great physical shape, and the peer-reviewed scientific literature bears this out. The first thing I want to look at when it comes to Cardio Training (aka Cardiovascular Training) is that more is not better when it comes to your heart.
INTENSE CARDIO & CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
Dr. Joe Mercola, dealing with four scientific studies on Cardio Training and heart health says on his site that, "According to a study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2010 in Montreal, regular exercise reduces cardiovascular risk by a factor of two or three. But the extended vigorous exercise performed during a marathon raises cardiac risk by seven-fold! In a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, half of the older lifelong athletes showed some heart muscle scarring as a result, and they were specifically the men who had trained the longest and hardest. Published in the journal Circulation, an animal study was designed to mimic the strenuous daily exercise load of serious marathoners over the course of 10 years. All the rats had normal, healthy hearts at the outset of the study, but by the end most of them had developed "diffuse scarring and some structural changes, similar to the changes seen in the human endurance athletes." Yet another study showed that long-term endurance athletes suffer from diminished function of the right ventricle of the heart after endurance racing. They also had increased blood levels of cardiac enzymes, which are markers for heart injury, and 12 percent of the athletes had detectable scar tissue on their heart muscle one week post-race." The thing to take note of here is not that all cardio-style training is bad for the heart, but when done to excess, it can be very detrimental to heart health. How much is too much? That is a question that everyone needs to answer for themselves. I personally hate the fact that it took me a very long time to figure this out for myself. It is my belief that because Cardio Training can be so addictive, many people have difficulty answering this question honestly.
RUNNING & DEGENERATIVE ARTHRITIS
Another problematic area for the hardcore running crowd concerns potential DEGENERATIVE ARTHRITIS of the hips, knees, and spine. Although there are a number of studies saying that running does not cause Degenerative Osteoarthritis, there are several studies saying it does. Although getting out and moving is great arthritis prevention, here is what I know. Spending lots of time on concrete or asphalt is hard on joints --- particularly the three joints mentioned above. Ask anyone who lives or works on the stuff. Most people who run outdoors, tend to run on hard surfaces (not sure that gravel roads are any better). The more time you spend pounding the pavement, the more mechanical stress you put on these load-bearing joints. And although many people can handle this, many others cannot.
This is particularly true of people who are overweight. While there tends to be fewer runners in this category, because nearly 70% of our adult population is either overweight or outright OBESE, you will see a fair number of oversize runners. This is why for years I have been recommending that my patients who run find an area where they can run on grass (a football field, park, golf course, or even a pasture with a path mowed through it). Some municipalities actually have running trails covered with wood chips. Good shoes will help tremendously, but softer running surfaces can be a saving grace over the long haul. Now it's time to shift gears and deal with endocrine issues related to intense training or over-training.
Lets first look at a study from the September 2011 issue of the medical journal Psychoneuroimmunology (Elevated Hair Cortisol Concentrations in Endurance Athletes). Listen to the cherry-picked conclusions from the abstract of this article. "Engaging in intensive aerobic exercise, specifically endurance sports, is associated with HPA axis activation indicated by elevated cortisol levels. Hair samples were obtained from 304 amateur endurance athletes (long-distance runners, triathletes, cyclists) and 70 controls. Endurance athletes exhibited higher cortisol levels in all three hair segments compared to controls. Positive correlations between the cortisol concentration in the first hair segment and each indicator of training volume were found. These data suggest that repeated physical stress of intensive training and competitive races among endurance athletes is associated with elevated cortisol exposure over prolonged periods of time." In order to grasp the magnitude of the implications of this study, we need to have a cursory understanding of the HPA Axis.
Go back 17 years ago to the June issue of The Journal of Sports Science. They published a study called, "Oxidants, Antioxidant Nutrients, and the Athlete". The conclusions of the study as found in the abstract stated, "Strenuous physical exercise induces oxidative stress. Severe or prolonged exercise can overwhelm antioxidant defenses... Evidence for oxidative stress and damage during exercise comes from direct measurement of free radicals, from measurement of damage to lipids and DNA, and from measurement of antioxidant redox status, especially glutathione." Glutathione is probably the single most powerful anti-oxidant in your body, and other than a "recycler" product made by AE, there is no good supplement that I am aware of for replacing it.
Later that same year, the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness published a study called, Blood Free Radical Antioxidant Enzymes and Lipid Peroxides Following Long-Distance and Lactacidemic Performances in Highly Trained Aerobic and Sprint Athletes. Here were the study's conclusions. "Both strenuous long duration exercise and exhaustive sprint training overwhelm our capacity to detoxify ROS, producing oxidative stress." You need to be aware that oxidative stress leads to CHRONIC INFLAMMATION. Although most people think they know what Inflammation is, few have any real clue. This study showed that while both elite sprinters and elite distance runners had elevated inflammatory markers in their systems, the cardio athletes had double the amount of these same chemicals. In case you did not know it, one of the many health issues associated with Chronic Inflammation is Obesity (HERE).
LONG-DISTANCE RUNNING -vs- SPRINTS
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a boy (a high school freshman) and his mother about his weightlifting schedule. It seems he has frequently been working out more than once a day, and some of these workouts were as long as 2.5 hours. No matter how you slice it, this is not good. According to virtually all the research coming out of the field today, we need to be doing higher intensity, shorter duration workouts. This is true of virtually all forms of exercise (including Resistance Training), and is one of the big reasons that Cross-Fit like exercise programs have become so popular. Many of these workouts are only 15 or 20 minutes long (some are shorter than that), and I do not think that any of their running workouts is farther than a mile. Most of their cardio comes from non-stop exercises or sprints. Which brings us to our next topic.
If cutting back on intensive Cardio Training (particularly running) is a good thing, what should a person replace it with. It is my belief that for those of us who are not professional or semi-professional athletes, most "running" can be replaced by Resistance Training and Sprints. I will talk about Resistance Training a little bit more shortly, but let's take a quick look at sprints (I will cover the research promoting sprinting sometime in the future). Sometimes you will see Sprint Training referred to as Interval Training, Burst Training, Explosiveness Training, or any number of other monikers. The method is simple. Find a grassy field (or you can do this on a treadmill in bad weather) and run sprints of a certain distance or duration. Walk for a certain amount of time during the recovery phase. And then do it again. You can run uphill, and walk down if you feel you need to crank things up. You can do 40 yard dashes, 100 yard dashes, or whatever distance you feel is best for you. You can take a few seconds, thirty seconds, or even more (if you need it), for recovering between sprints. If you want details, simply Google Weight Loss Sprints and start reading (there were close to a million hits).
My best guess is that Mark would agree with me that many of us can get away with this sort of lifestyle and serious over-training while we are young. The problem is, as we age, the damage from Oxidative Stress / Chronic Inflammation continues to accumulate. Couple this with a carb-loaded diet, and you have the makings of a proverbial "recipe for disaster" (Weight Gain, a crumbling HPA-Axis, Endocrine Dysfunction, Weakened Immune System, Diminished Sex Drive / Low Testosterone, etc). And here's the kicker. Although I certainly did not have most of the problems mentioned above (weight gain was my tipping point); until I was a few years into practice (mid 90's), I'm embarrassed to say that I actually believed I was doing things right. I was just following the advice of my instructors, the media, and the fitness gurus du jour.
I knew I was on to something when a patient came to me years ago insisting she could not lose weight no matter how hard she worked out. She was walking something like 12 miles a day and wanted to know if kicking it up to 15 miles a day might be the solution to her "problem". I cut her back to no more than an hour of walking a day, got her to lean more toward the LOW CARB side of things, and had her start doing 15 minutes of RESISTANCE TRAINING ON A BALL three days a week. The results were remarkable. Not only did this gal lose the excess weight she was trying to lose, within a matter of a couple of months her shape and overall muscle tone had improved dramatically, despite the fact she was exercising two or more fewer hours a day than she had previously been doing.
Over-training is something that for people who are really into fitness and exercise, often comes a bit too naturally. This is probably because it's easy to buy into the old adage that if a little bit is good, more must be better. And a whole lot must be extra super fantastic. One of my favorite stories of this less-is-more principle in action is that of THE WOMAN who lost 100 lbs in 100 days by simply going Low Carb and doing 2-3 15 or 20 minute KETTLE BELL SESSIONS a week.
If you follow similar protocols (with your doctor's blessing of course) and do not get great results, you probably have some sort of underlying metabolic issue going on. It could be that you are GLUTEN SENSITIVE or AUTOIMMUNE (two problems that are intimately related to each other). You may have LEAKY GUT SYNDROME or a NON-DIABETIC issue with INSULIN RESISTANCE or even HYPOGLYCEMIA. You may have already fouled up your ENDOCRINE / THYROID / ADRENAL SYSTEM in a sub-clinical manner. In other words, standard medical tests are telling you that everything is fine when it is obviously not. The bottom line is that with the proper approach, virtually all of these problems can improve or be completely resolved.