So Now Running Doesn't Help Heart Health?

A new study of Minnesota-based marathon runners calls into question how heart-healthy endurance running is. 


The second most popular TED Talk of all time, “Your body language may shape who you are,” features social psychologist Ann Cuddy presenting the idea that “power posing” boosts self-confidence and may even increase your chance of success. There’s a reason such a message resonates with so many people—Youtube alone has 13.3 million views. Problem is, the study Cuddy references has not been reproduced. 

This is an emerging problem in science—at least our general awareness of the problem is becoming more prevalent, making our faith in many studies cautionary at best. The latest Radiolab episode, Stereothreat, looks into this phenomenon, in this case predominantly in the social sciences. Results are not being replicated. Yet once an idea is released into the public sphere the likelihood it becomes common wisdom is strong. We only use 10 percent of brain power, anybody?

There is little difference in exercise science, a branch of research even more prone to trends, hype, and terrible ideas. Science is always changing as new studies are conducted. If a previously held assumption is rendered implausible, the science should change. Convincing people to change previously held ideas is not a scientific endeavor, however. It requires emotional appeal. Even then the task is daunting. 

What else can we say of a study implying running might not be good for heart health? It’s the type of information that, if you’re a runner, is akin to being religious and learning the Bible is a work of satire. Still, “Fifty Men, 3510 Marathons, Cardiac Risk Factors, and Coronary Artery Calcium Scores,” published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, discovered that among fifty endurance runners, more running did not equate to less arterial plaque. 

It should be noted these are supermen in the running world. Each has run at least one marathon for twenty-five consecutive years. Their mean age is fifty-nine, with a mean BMI of 22.44; combined they’ve logged 3,510 marathons. While this study cannot answer questions about your 5k jogs, it does shed insight into the efficacy of extreme mileage on overall heart functioning and, specifically, coronary artery calcium (CAC) scores. 

The notion that running lessens heart disease was initiated forty years ago during the first real wave of the marathon craze. In 1976, Dr Thomas Bassler speculated marathon runners were immune from heart disease. Within two years he was proven wrong, but like the 10 percent of brain power notion, his idea has persisted. What serious athlete wouldn’t want immortality conferred unto them, as an idea if not in reality? 

This isn’t the only research to cast doubt on the heart-running connection. As the NY Times reports, a recent study of middle-aged male triathletes found that top-notch competitors had more scarring inside of their hearts, while other studies pointed out that endurance athletes suffer a different form of atherosclerosis than their sedentary peers. As for the above study, which was focused on Minnesota-based marathon runners: 

When the scientists compared the men’s running histories to their scan results, however, they found little relationship between how much they had run overall and how much plaque they had in their arteries. Those men who had run the greatest number of marathons did not tend to have less, or more, arterial plaque than the men who had run fewer races, indicating that extreme running itself had not increased the severity of heart disease.

Running is not a silver bullet for overcoming bad dietary and lifestyle habits, writes the team, which was led by William Roberts of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Though there was surprisingly little variation in HDL cholesterol levels among these fifty men, limiting factors include differences in tobacco usage, age, when they began running, and dietary habits. As Roberts told the Times, “You just can’t outrun your past.” 

Most importantly this sort of research calls into question the limits of the human body. Endurance is a human trait—it’s why we can’t beat a horse (or most any other quadruped) in a sprint but can easily jog past it in a marathon—yet how much we should endure is a constant question in fitness. Scientifically-backed data give us a clearer indication of how much is healthy and what amount is too much. 

Of course, this, like most every exercise form, is individual, which also has to be taken into consideration. Many studies cannot be replicated broadly, and it should be remembered that running is a birthright. We just have to understand what it provides and what it does not. We know it’s better to hit the trail than to sit at home. Where that trail leads remains open for speculation. 

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Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.