Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ultra-endurace and my heart

Recently there was an article published by Scientific American entitled, Ultrarunning Might be bad for your Heart.

My husband saw it first. He felt strongly enough about it that it was the first thing he mentioned when he got home from work. I hadn't seen it because I avoid most news on a daily basis. But I looked it up. It got my attention.

My father died from heart disease. I had just completed a 7 hour triathlon - you can see the connection.

It seemed like a pretty damning set of information. It also seemed one-sided and that set my little journalist-training sensors off. While I certainly don't work as a reporter I actually went to school to be a journalist. I still have my copy of the AP Style Book stuffed into a box somewhere. Okay, okay, a photojournalist but I still think I took an entire class on research.  I'd have to check my transcript to be sure,  it may have just been parts of other classes.

I seem to remember that if you're reporting on something it's a good idea to have more than one unique source. If I remember correctly a unique source means that they should be really separate - unrelated. So you shouldn't source one report on heart disease and a supporting source which contributed to that same report. Instead you would try to find a totally separate source (like a cardiologist who treats endurance athletes but didn't contribute to the report) regarding the same information. That way the reporting is as unbiased as possible and also hopefully accurate.

My first online search found the news release from the Mayo Clinic. You can find it here.

I read it. And I watched the sourced video.

And my stomach turned sour. Not because of the information contained but because that's what it is. But it seems to me that the Scientific American Article may have come entirely from the News Release.

It took me 7 minutes to request the full study. Which is now available to the public here

Seven minutes. I requested it at 9:20 in the morning. I received a reply at 9:27.

It took me about 10 minutes to read the report.

My point is - I'm pretty sure that the reporter could have made her deadline and gotten the original source rather than the just the news release.  Maybe she did read it - I actually have no way of knowing.  I did send her a tweet - she didn't respond. My tweet may have been a little irritating in tone so if the positions were reversed I may not have responded either. I also can't say that having the full article would have changed the content or tone of the finished article.

If you're curious read the actual report and form your own opinions.

Another Study - the power of Google
Even then it would have just been one source. Here's an example of an article on Runners World that has 6 sources. Just as an example. This article happens to be older but you get the idea. More sources might equal more well rounded article and better information for the reader.

So, I did what any person with a question and too much time does: I googled it. I'll be honest I was hoping for a flurry of articles disagreeing with this articles sentiment but instead I found this one from the New York Times which does in fact point to more research questioning whether too much exercise can cause heart damage. 

It's from a totally different study. So, while the information scared me a little bit I was happy to have read it. 

I will say that I found the New York Times article to be much more balanced. Much more informative. Less panic inducing and generally a better article. That's probably why it never made it to page one of Yahoo news.

But now I'm at about 40 minutes of work and I've found a second supporting source that would have given more support to her article. I asked myself what else might have made this article better?

I took a moment brainstormed what other sources might have been interesting to hear from as a reader related to this topic. Here are some that I quickly came up with:
  • A cardiologist who works with endurance athletes. I already mentioned that above.
  • An actual competitive endurance athlete. (Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, Lance Armstrong)
  • An actuary. Those are the folks who figure out mortality figures for life insurance companies. They might have an estimate for the risk of dying from this versus other stuff.
  • Dr. Oz (he always seems to have an opinion).
  • A coach working with endurance athletes perhaps Alberto Salazar who himself has a heart condition and is currently training elite runners? That would be interesting to me to hear his opinion.

Unfortunately, I still have a bunch of unanswered questions after all this time I've spent fretting about this.
  • How does this impact me - the middle of the pack, middle-aged athlete with a family history of heart disease?
  • Is this slight risk of this outweighed by the known risk of a sedentary lifestyle?
  • Is anybody else researching this?
  • Does this condition occur in the general population and if so to what degree?
  • Can an athlete test for this? Is there a way to prevent it?
  • Who was in this study? The study only mentions men so is it possible women have different results?
  • Could there be other factors implicit in this condition (diet, heredity)?
  • Who financed these studies - and why? I'm a little cynical and I fear that many medical studies are done to promote somebody's financial gain.
Anyway what's the point of this blog post?
Well even I'm not sure. I get a little heated when I see what I think is lazy reporting and even I'm not sure why. It's one of the reasons I don't work in the news industry but the main reason I stopped was the crappy pay. So I should just let it go. When I ranted to my husband, he listened and nodded and said, "let it go."

Wrapping it up
Definitely, this connection between extreme exercise and heart damage is something to pay attention to. But in my heart of hearts (pun intended) I really do think that the changes training for these events makes to my lifestyle are better than the alternative.

Both of my parents were overweight and when they turned 40 they got a present from their doctor which was a prescription for high blood pressure medicine. My father died a few years ago of heart disease and my mother has some weirdness happening with her heart too now. I'm 38 and my blood pressure yesterday was 112/68. My weight is good (115), I pay a lot of attention to what I eat to eat whole foods to fuel my lifestyle, I don't drink heavily and I get adequate sleep most of the time.

It seems to me that this has got to be better for me in the long run than sitting on the couch and drinking beer. Of course, there could be more moderation in my lifestyle. I could train for 5k's. But for me that just doesn't have the appeal at the moment of the marathon and possibly (still just possibly) the Ironman. So, that's what I'm gonna do. Keep training, keep racing and keep paying attention.

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