14 May 2024

Ultra-high stress on the body has prolonged life by several years

An international group of scientists has come to the conclusion that, contrary to popular belief, extreme physical activity can have a healing effect on the body.

Regular exercise is the basis for healthy ageing. It is believed, however, that excessive physical activity can be harmful to the body, particularly adversely affecting the heart. During intense and prolonged endurance exercise (such as extreme speed cycling), the body releases a certain amount of proteins that are thought to be harmful to the heart.

To learn more about the harms or benefits of exercise, scientists from the University of Alberta (Canada) and the St Vincent Institute for Medical Research (Australia) studied the life expectancy of 200 athletes born between 1928 and 1955 who managed to run 1.6 kilometres (one mile) in less than four minutes. This is a supreme result, requiring enormous exertion. Until 1954, no one had ever managed to do this, and since then very few people, even among athletes, have been able to do it. By comparison, to get into the astronaut squad, it is enough to run one kilometre in four minutes, and the average civilised person without training will not run a kilometre in five minutes.

All the participants in the study were men, as no woman has yet been able to run such a distance in such a short time. Among them was British neurologist and athlete Roger Bannister - the first person in the world who 70 years ago ran 1.6 kilometres in less than four minutes.

Scientists learnt that 60 of the 200 runners had died by December 2023. Their average life expectancy was 73 years. The same figure for the survivors turned out to be an average of 77 years. Taking into account each participant's place and time of birth, the researchers calculated that athletes who ran 1.6 kilometres in four minutes in the 1950s lived more than nine years longer than their peers who didn't do the same. What's also interesting is this: those who achieved a similar result in the 1960s and 1970s lived 5.5 and three years longer respectively. Researchers have suggested that this may be due to an improvement in the health of the population as a whole - people in general just started living longer.

The findings, according to the researchers, suggest that extreme physical activity may not be as harmful to health as previously thought. "Perhaps athletes who can run a mile in less than four minutes have such a strong heart, developed lungs, blood vessels, muscles and immune system that they can really recover well from the stresses of everyday life," - shared the opinion of the first author of the study Stephen Foulkes.

At the same time, the scientists believe that the results of their study alone do not challenge the idea that prolonged high-intensity exercise can have harmful effects on the heart. It is quite possible that health, and as a consequence, life expectancy in physically active but not extreme athletes is even at a higher level than in the general population. The scientists' findings are presented in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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