Exercise Could Kill You!!

What a sensational headline!  It’s ridiculous, right?  Well, surprisingly, it holds a nugget of truth for millions of aging athletes (like me) who are trying to maintain physical activity and fitness well into our 40’s, 50’s and beyond.

That, in a nutshell, is why I recently joined a heart study at UBC looking into the risk of early, sudden death in older athletes. Yes, I worry about that, ever since my son arrived in 2011 as I hit the ripe old age of 43. Even more so two years later when my dad died prematurely (aged 69) due to heart disease related to Type 2 diabetes.  So yesterday, I went through the screening process to take part in the study.

Resting 12-lead electrocardiogram. (with complimentary chest-shave)

Resting 12-lead electrocardiogram. (with complimentary chest-shave)

The study was mentioned in a recent edition of the News Hour when Sports Director Squire Barnes featured running guru Dr. Jack Taunton who, unexpectedly, suffered what could have been a fatal cardiac event, despite a life dedicated to running and physical fitness.  It was, obviously, a game-changer for him.

You can see Squire’s original report here: http://globalnews.ca/video/embed/2108818/“> Also, Dr. Taunton further explains his reasons for launching the study here: http://globalnews.ca/video/embed/1923703/“>

I contacted Dr. Taunton who put me in touch with the very friendly UBC Research and Project Coordinator Barbara Morrison, who is handling the study participants (including me) and helping compile all the data.  She’s written an article on the topic.

Ms. Morrison’s article points out “Regular physical activity is associated with health benefits and “successful aging” in Masters athletes (>35 years old). Paradoxically, exercise can increase risk of heart attacks, irregular heart rhythms and sudden cardiac death (SCD) in those with underlying disease.”

Those last 5 words are the most important to guys like me who try to live an active lifestyle which regularly includes quasi-intense physical activity.  How do I know if I have “underlying disease” and that those last few reps or that sprint down the court won’t kill me?

Well, participating in the study is helping answer that. And there’s nothing that will test your ticker quicker than the Exercise Treadmill Test.

Exercise treadmill test. Gradually increasing speed and incline. I made it to 13.8 minutes with burning calves before I tapped out. The test terminates at 21. Not embarrassing, but not exactly world class either.

Exercise treadmill test. Gradually increasing speed and incline. I made it to 13.8 minutes with burning calves before I tapped out. The test terminates at 21. Not embarrassing, but not exactly world class either.

The test is able to detect arrhythmias (abnormal heart beat) and flow-limiting coronary artery disease. After 13.8 minutes on an ever-inclining, ever-accelerating treadmill, my will gave out just before my legs did.  The researchers saw no sign of either heart malfunction in my ECG (phew!) and a subsequent ultrasound examination by Dr. Saul Isserow, who is also involved in the study, showed no abnormalities in my heart function and all my blood flowing in the direction it is supposed to be flowing.  This is good.

This information is incredibly comforting to me.  I know I’m not going to die of an imminent heart attack. At least not one that’s related to my current exercise regime.  But the information from my participation and the hundreds of others they’re hoping to test is also very useful to those running the study.

Right now, there is no BC-based data on the health and well-being of so-called Masters Athletes and their risk for sudden cardiac death.  We know exercise is generally an excellent way to improve physical well-being and longevity, but we don’t know how much exercise is too much. Eventually, you hit an area of diminishing returns, and end up hurting yourself more than you’re helping.  If we can find the “sweet spot”, that place on the graph that shows where older athletes can get maximum benefit with minimal risk of SCD, we can confidently compete knowing we will cross the finish line without leaving our loved ones behind.

And I know my wife and my son will appreciate it.

If you are a Masters Athlete, over age 35 who exercises rigorously at least 3 times a week, or if you know one, you can contact Barb Morrison bmorrison@sportscardiologybc.org for more information about participating in the study!  She’s so nice!  Go on, do it.

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