Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stoopid Questions About Health: NYT Edition

Teachers insist that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I would beg to differ. Exhibit A is yesterday's New York Times article looking at rates of atrial fibrillation and other abnormal heart rhythms in the contestants of a cross-country ski marathon in Sweden. The article's title asks: "Can You Get Too Much Exercise?" as it goes on to discuss (possibly) slightly higher rates of abnormal heart rhythms in these ├╝ber-fit marathoners compared to the general population.

So let's try here to respond in our own way to the Times, and ask again: can you get too much exercise?

The answer is no. The answer is NO. The answer is NO!

The key to unlocking the puzzle is the slippery use of the word "you" within the question. The percentage of people participating in marathon skiing events, or Iron Man triathlons, or various and sundry other "ultra" events is vanishingly small. You, by contrast, are much more likely to be significantly more sedentary than these human miracles of aerobic activity. You--as a matter of statistics--are probably not eating anywhere near the healthy diet of these people. And you are much more likely to die of a heart attack, or stroke, or possibly even a cancer, than a bunch of Swedes who think that a 60-mile jaunt on skis constitutes a rollicking good time. And for that version of you, I say this: you can't get too much exercise! Not right now, baby! Time to hit the treadmill!

I don't really quibble with the researchers' data, although as the article notes, interpreting this slightly increased rate of what are known in the biz as "arrhythmias" is not completely straightforward. But this is the kind of myopia that doesn't help people understand the extent of the problem of weight, exercise, and cardiovascular disease. It is an epidemic in every sense of the word. Indeed, it is a pandemic, no more or less than The Great Influenza of the early 20th century, as this Times article shows that the problem has spread to the other side of the world as well.

The bottom line: we need to be exercising more. We can't get too much exercise. If you get around to Swedish ski marathons, then call back. In the meantime, get moving! (And pat me on the back for my two 36-mile rides this past week while you're at it.)