“The short answer is, we don’t know,” said Dr. James O’Keefe, the director of preventive cardiology at Mid-American Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., who’s been studying the impact of long-term endurance training on longevity.
The relevant science is perplexing. A 2011 study of male, lifelong, competitive endurance athletes age 50 or older found that they had more scarring in their heart muscle than men of the same age who were active but not competitive athletes. None of the athletes had died young, however, and in a 2011 study of Tour de France riders, who train ferociously, those who had competed between 1930 and 1964 lived, on average, about eight years longer than age-matched men.
The pool of extreme, long-term endurance athletes available for scientific study is, however, tiny. So to gauge the impact of various amounts of training on lifespan, it’s necessary, Dr. O’Keefe said, to turn to the rest of us, who exercise recreationally, if at all.
In the largest such study to date, involving more than 50,000 adults and presented at the 2012 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, participants who ran between 1 and 20 miles per week had almost 20 percent less risk of dying prematurely than people who didn’t exercise. But those who ran more than 20 miles per week enjoyed no such benefit. They had about the same risk of premature death as those who were sedentary.
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