Many of us live by the exercise motto: “Go hard or go home!” bragging about sweating it out in the gym, screaming muscles as we pound the pavement, the sand or the bench presses in the quest for a toned and healthy body. But Cardiologist Dr Ross Walker has warned that too much exercise is not healthy, especially after the age of 40, and it all comes back to stressing out the body.
As a heart specialist, Dr Walker is a proponent of preventative cardiology — informing patients how to best reduce activities that put them at risk of a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
He said while exercise is essential for everybody, the problem for many was the duration and intensity of their exercise.
“The dose of exercise for health should be somewhere between three to five hours per week,” he said.
“Going beyond that has been shown to give you no further health benefit, but it does increase the risk for all these issues.”
Dr Walker said he suspected the reason too much exercise was not good for a person came down to stressing out the system.
“I probably feel one of the reasons for this, and while it hasn’t been absolutely proven, it’s quite logical, is that if you push yourself too hard you’re overstretching all the mechanisms in the body,” he said. “Including you’re overworking the heart and, and like anything that’s overworked, it eventually gives up.”
Dr Walker pointed out that premature death in elite athletes in their 20s and 30s was not uncommon, not just from cardiac issues by also from cancer.
He said one theory was that excessive exercise resulted in chronic and recurrent damage to “a whole lot of muscles in the body”.
“And [it] releases all these toxins into the system that really switches on the inflammatory system, and therefore does predispose you to this happening as you get older,” he said.
Dr Walker said his advice was for everyone as they get older to have regular check-ups to make sure their heart was up to the job.
And he said it was not just athletes who should be getting cardiac assessments; anyone who wants to continue to do high level activities over the age of 40 should get a regular assessment.
“Especially if you want to still be a professional athlete in some way,” he said, adding that the best predictive test is not a cholesterol test or a blood pressure test, but coronary calcium scoring.
“It’s a simple test, it’s low radiation, it’s inexpensive and it’s the best way to see whether you’ll drop dead of a heart attack,” he said.
“All males at 50 or women at 60 should have a coronary calcium score.”
The test is a CT scan that takes a non-invasive picture of the heart and measures, “how much muck you have in the walls of your arteries”.
Basically, it measures the amount of calcium in the walls of the arteries that supply a person’s heart muscle, showing the level of hardening of the artery wall.
That can be used to predict the risk of a heart attack or stroke over a five- to 10-year period.
Dr Walker also advised people to only play competition sport up to around 30-35 years of age, and then from there to stick to “moderate exercise”.
“Unless of course if they really want to [continue to play], [then they should] have a regular cardiac assessment to make sure it’s safe to do so,” he said.
Dr Walker cited a study of veterans-league soccer players that found players had higher than normal levels of the most common form of heart-rhythm disturbance, called atrial fibrillation.
He said he had known a semi-professional triathlete in his 40s and every time he competed in a race he would go into atrial fibrillation.
“I said the best thing you can do for your heart is to get a jacket with ‘coach’ on it,” Dr Walker said.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
Tightness or heaviness in your chest that becomes severe
Pain in the shoulders and/or arms
Jaw and neck pain
Sudden difficulty breathing
If you or someone you know is experiencing heart attack symptoms, call triple-0 immediately