Is Extreme Exercise Really Harming Your Heart?

Photo: Kleber Smith

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Marathon runners and extreme athletes are some of the healthiest people in the world, right? In some ways, yes—but two new studies published in the journal Circulation earlier this week found that all that exercise can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries over time.

Both the studies—one was out of the Radboud study in the Netherlands, and the other was conducted at the University of London—looked at plaque buildup in the arteries in particular. Both studies found that people, particularly men, have more plaque buildup in their arteries over time when they exercise in a more extreme way (think four hours per week of running) while people who ran for only one hour per week had less plaque buildup.

Although plaque buildup is typically a sign of cardiovascular disease, there's a catch: The type of plaque that builds up as a result of extreme exercise is dense, heavily calcified, and less likely to lead to a heart attack than the looser type that results from poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle.

"If you dig into the morphology of the plaques, they appear to be more benign," says Dr. Benjamin Levine, a professor of cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and a co-author of an editorial on the study.

In other words, don't worry too much about the correlation between regular exercise and heart health. But if you're a fan of super-extreme exercise, you may want to take it down a notch.

Intrigued? Find out why active recovery is sweeping the fitness industry.

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