Super runners live longer than the rest of us: study

Once upon a time, no one thought anyone could run a mile (1.6km) in four minutes or less, and if they could, it was believed the health consequences of the super-human feat would be dire.

Not so, it would seem, with a Canadian and Australian study finding that, on the contrary, the first 200 people to accomplish the feat were notably long-lived.

“When Roger Bannister did it, it was thought unachievable,” André La Gerche, a cardiologist at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Melbourne tells Cosmos.

Bannister became the first person to achieve the record on 6 May 1954 – 70 years ago – with a 3:59.4 mile at an Oxford track meet.

“It remains an elite measure. There’s something like 1,750 people that have done it, if you compare that climbing Mount Everest, I think there’s been 17,000 who have done that.”

Healthy lifestyles that include regular, moderate exercise have long been accepted – and encouraged – as a good thing.

However La Gerche and his colleagues wanted to see whether extreme exercise could have negative health impacts usually in the form of documented cardiac events, and reduce longevity.

While they agree with the potential for cardiac structure and function to change in athletes who participate in ultra-endurance events, their analysis of the lifespans of the first 200 4-minute-milers suggests life can be lived longer.

On average, those who can run 1.6km in less than 4 minutes lived 4.7 years beyond their predicted life expectancy. Those superhumans who accomplished the feat in earlier decades lived longer than their benchmarked mortals.

The study team doesn’t know why longevity decreases over time, though they speculate the advance of sedentary lifestyle across populations or improvement in medical science, could explain the narrowing gap.

Still, these elite running efforts appear statistically unlikely to send the runner to an early grave.

La Gerche also notes other reasons why these athletes can run their lives longer.

“To run a 4-minute mile, you’ve got, you’ve got already a selection bias,” he says.

“You have to be fit and well, you’re unlikely to have heart disease or cancer or anything [like that] to begin with when you’re running.

“On top of that you tend to have a pretty good diet – because you want to get everything just right – you won’t be drinking [alcohol] a whole lot because you’re training pretty much every day… and you tend to be of good socioeconomic status.

“You’re basically ticking every single health domain of longevity.”

The study group noted the lack of information on lifelong exercise habits and other health data from the 200 runners, and they believe high-performance athletes tend to maintain a highly active lifestyle after their peak.

Their analysis is published today in the British Medical Journal.

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