The frenzy of the 2016 Rio Olympics is over. Medals have been awarded and athletes have returned home.
To get to the elite level, Olympians go through intense, focused physical and psychological training for years. Some swimmers train for more than 35 hours a week, and gymnasts and runners train for more than 30.
Considering the time that athletes spend exercising, it would be fair to assume they lead healthier lives than the average person. Exercise has often been considered an important factor in maintaining good health. But how much of a good thing is too much?
The New York Times explores the effect of Olympic-level physical training on the body and finds long-term intensive training changes how the heart is shaped. A previous study found endurance athletes were at a higher risk for developing atrial fibrillation, but it did not show any causal relationship between strenuous training and heart problems. A 2012 study examined the hearts of long-term competitive athletes and found irregularities in the athletes’ right ventricles, which pumped considerably less blood than those of a completely healthy heart.
To further investigate the effects of strenuous exercise on health, a recent study at Saarland University in Germany on older endurance athletes has uncovered a noticeable difference in the structure of athletes’ hearts, but not in the way it functions. Researchers of the study believe any harm from intensive training might be short-term as they observed no damage in the long-term. Exercise scientists haven’t reached a consensus on the state of professional athletes’ health, but it’s clear their bodies have adapted to their unique lifestyle.
For an average healthy adult, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week in addition to strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least two times a week. On the flip side, experts warn against exercising too much, as it can lead to injuries and lasting physical damage. For those of us not headed to Tokyo in 2020, there is an exercise “sweet spot” where we can reap the health benefits of physical activity without spending hours at the gym.
– Aparna Mazumdar