The idea that heavy physical activity is a main trigger of heart attacks is widespread. Often endurance running and cardio-type activities are singled out. Some people refer to this as “death by running”. Others think that strength training has a higher lethal potential. We know based on the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study that this is a myth.
Here is some evidence that heavy physical activity in fact has a significant protective effect. The graph below, from Brooks et al. (2005) shows the number of deaths from coronary heart disease, organized by age group, in longshoremen (dock workers). The shaded bars represent those whose level of activity at work was considered heavy. The unshaded bars represent those whose level of activity at work was considered moderate or light (essentially below the “heavy” level).
The data is based on an old and classic study of 6351 men, aged 35 to 74 years, who were followed either for 22 years, or to death, or to the age of 75. It shows a significant protective effect of heavy activity, especially after age 45. The numbers atop the unshaded bars reflect the relative risk of death from coronary heart disease in each age group. For example, in the age group 65-74, the risk among those not in the heavy activity group is 110 percent higher (2.1 times higher) than in the heavy activity group.
It should be noted that this is a cumulative effect, of years of heavy activity. Based on the description of the types of activities performed, and the calories spent, I estimate that the heavy activity group performed the equivalent of a few hours of strength training per week, plus a lot of walking and other light physical activities. The authors of the study concluded that “… repeated bursts of high energy output established a plateau of protection against coronary mortality.”
Heavy physical activity may not make you lose much weight, but has the potential to make you live longer.
Brooks, G.A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise physiology: Human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.