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Marathon Training Lowers Heart Disease Risk In Middle-Aged Men

It seems like every cubicle dweller I know is training for a marathon. But then there are those tragic headlines about middle-aged runners keeling over dead at the finish line. Is this really a good idea?

Marathon training actually reduces a person's cardiovascular risk, according to a study presented Thursday at the American College of Cardiology's scientific sessions in Washington, D.C. That's true even if they're just average recreational runners, not elite athletes.

The researchers looked at 45 people who didn't qualify to run the 2013 Boston Marathon based on their times. Instead, they were able to participate because they were raising money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

"We set out to look at exactly the kind of person who says 'Yeah, I'm going to go out and run a marathon,' " Dr. Jodi Zilinski, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the lead author of the study, told Shots.

Still, these guys were not total couch potatoes. Half of the 35- to 65-year-olds had run three or more marathons in their lifetime.

The Mass General researchers screened all the men for cardiovascular risk factors before and after they participated in an 18-week program to train for the marathon. Just over half had one or more risk factors, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure or a family history of heart disease.

At the end of training, boy did those numbers look better. The men's LDL or "bad" cholesterol dropped 5 percent on average, and triglycerides, also a risk factor for heart disease, dropped 15 percent. Total cholesterol dropped 5 percent.

Perhaps most significant, the men had a 4 percent increase in their peak oxygen consumption, which measures cardiovascular fitness. "It's a pretty potent indicator of longevity," Zilinski says.

The study didn't look at whether those people were then less likely to suffer sudden cardiac death during the race, Zilinski says. And it turns out that those headline-generating deaths are actually pretty rare.

A 2012 analysis of almost 11 million runners in marathons and half-marathons from 2000 to 2010 found that 59 out of every 100,000 runners had a heart attack. Most of them had pre-existing heart disease. The men (and they were almost all men) were 42 years old on average; 42 of the 59 died.

Zilinski says she hopes to repeat her experiment with women, as well as with people who attempt marathons after being total couch potatoes — or as the doctors put it, "exercise naive."

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