Nearly everyone has rushed to slap on a pair of sneakers and hit the road for an extra long run whenever the desire to lose a few pounds or “get in shape” has struck. The plain and simple truth about long distance running – or any long distance exercise for that matter – is that putting in all those extra miles can lead to the very health malady that many of are trying to prevent through: ie., heart disease.
Not Ideal for Fat Loss or Weight Maintenance
It doesn’t end there either. Distance exercise definitely burns more calories than walking, but once you get even moderately fit using a slow and steady approach to exercising, the body adapts and begins to burn fewer calories (as much as 25%) than it did when you first started the routine. This metabolic reality means that running long distance has a very abrupt point of diminishing returns when it comes to fat loss and weight maintenance too.
Long Distance Exercise Linked to Heart Disease
You might be thinking there’s just no way on earth this could be possible. MMA competitor, Michael “The Count” Bisping has a confirmed resting heart rate of a mere 38 beats-per-minute. Endurance cyclist Miguel Indurian takes the limits of a resting pulse rate to even more unbelievable levels, clocking in at just 28 bpm.
Surely these men are among the healthiest on the planet, destined for a long life, with minimal health problems along the way. After all, a low heart rate is often thought to be indicative of physical fitness.
There are two main risk factors associated with long distance activity: atrial fibrillation and increased coronary-artery plaque levels in persistent long distance athletes. Both problems, particularly the increased plaque levels are affected by years of constant inflammation. Inflammation occurs naturally in all of us during exercise – the more exercise, the more inflammation. Longer bouts of exercise obviously result in more of it, and uncontrolled inflammation in the body leads to scarring, which you’ll learn more about in a moment.
Now, let’s get to why the ultra-low heart rate of an endurance athlete can actually work against them long term. A normal human heart rate ranges from 60 – 100 bpm, based on genetics; double that of the athletes mentioned early. The heart rate is governed by an important “pacemaker protein” called HCN4.
The low heart rate of distance athletes results from an adaptive lowering of this protein, which isn’t actually a good thing when an athlete gets older and needs a little more help in the form of increased circulation throughout the body.
It’s believe this is the reason that countless distance athletes have died while exercising in their later years, and why there appears to be an obvious correlation between a lifetime of distance exercise and the need for electronic pacemakers in these athletes as they age; even when compared to people who’ve smoked, abused drugs, or consumed a wretched diet most of their lives!
Essentially, an overly low heart rate is more indicative of a heart that’s had its natural rhythm disrupted, and can lead to missed beats and even a stopped heart when youth is no longer on our side.
This article likens long distance running to the Exercise Equivalent of Cheeseburgers.
Human Biology and Long Distance Activities
First and foremost, our bodies are designed to minimize stress and maximize our survival. Human biology isn’t designed to go all out for extended periods of time. On a primal level, we’re designed for short bursts of intense activity, followed by less intense boughts of walking, or resting and replenishing. We’re hunter/gatherers, designed to chase after Woolly Mammoths, run away from Sabre Toothed Tigers, and bumble about looking for any nuts and berries we can scrounge up.
Roger Bannister did it right when he first broke the century’s old 4 minute-mile record back in 1954. He didn’t likely know it, but running at a breakneck pace of 15 miles-an-hour for a short time period is exactly what man is designed for on a genetic level.
Long distance routines actually damage the human circulatory system, which was never designed to pump at 150+ beats per minute for hours at a time every week.
Much of this comes down again, to our biology’s ability to deal with inflammation. When inflammation goes uncontrolled in the heart, irreversible scarring takes place, affecting lifespan and leading to myocardial fibrosis (source).
So What Can We do to Get Fit and Lose Weight Safely?
The answer is short, intense exercise that gets the heart pumping up to maximum capacity, for long enough to get a healthy adaptive response from the body, burning excess blood sugar and fat stores, without causing the chronic and uncontrolled inflammation that damages the heart.
Much like our hunter/gatherer ancestors, the best approach to fitness, without disrupting our biology and improving health, appears to be 15 – 30 minutes of high intensity training. To be more specific, high intensity interval training (HIIT) such as the kind of exercise you’d get when doing multiple short sprints followed by a brief rest, or when training with weights – doing a set of an exercise, resting, then doing another.
In fact, as little as 3 minutes a week can benefit our body positively, according to this article from Mercola.com!
Running and cycling is fine too, provided you stop at or around the 30 minute mark.
Long distance walking, roller blading, and cycling at a slower pace are fine, provided you control your heart rate. If you can’t carry on a conversation, you’re pushing it too hard and may well be damaging your most important muscle!