OMG we’re all gonna die!!!!!eleventy!!

Posted by Dave on May 24, 2013 | 3 Comments

Just a quick post to note this article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal today.

Look familiar? It ought to. The same author wrote this article last year.

Both articles basically say the same thing, and quote the same authorities, citing the same research. The suggestion is that running too much is bad for your health. A moderate amount of running might be helpful, but running more than, say, 30 miles a week, is too much and is actually harmful.

What bugs me about today’s article in particular is the suggestion that “new research” is telling us these things. There is no new research. There is the same old research. And Alex Hutchinson responded quite well to that research when the same author reported on it in the Wall Street Journal last year:

But here, from the actual abstract, is the part they never mention:

Cox regression was used to quantify the association between running and mortality after adjusting for baseline age, sex, examination year, body mass index, current smoking, heavy alcohol drinking, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, parental CVD, and levels of other physical activities.

What this means is that they used statistical methods to effectively “equalize” everyone’s weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and so on. But this is absurd when you think about it. Why do we think running is good for health? In part because it plays a role in reducing weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and so on (for more details on how this distorts the results, including evidence from other studies on how these statistical tricks hide real health benefits from much higher amounts of running, see my earlier blog entry). They’re effectively saying, “If we ignore the known health benefits of greater amounts of aerobic exercise, then greater amounts of aerobic exercise don’t have any health benefits.”

Unsurprisingly, the new article in today’s Wall Street Journal has generated hundreds of comments. What frustrates me is that the Journal is playing on the fact that millions of runners will be interested in this sort of research and drawn to the article thinking that something new is being reported. In fact there is no new research. Indeed, the sort of research that could actually generate authoritative results will probably never be conducted, because it would be very difficult indeed to do a long-term experimental study on this phenomenon. We’ll probably never know for sure whether running, say, 50 miles a week, is more or less harmful than running 20 miles a week. We’ll probably also never see the Wall Street Journal report on that.


3 Responses to “OMG we’re all gonna die!!!!!eleventy!!”

  1. Armi Legge
    May 28th, 2013 @ 11:59 am

    Great article, thanks for being so honest about this topic.

    Besides the ironic nature of the story, it’s a little confusing why people are determined to pain endurance exercise as so unhealthy. Okay, so they don’t enjoy it, but stop hating on it or making it sound horrible for you. Anyway, if you’re interested, I wrote a long series reviewing the evidence on whether or not endurance exercise is bad for the heart. Here’s a link if you’d like to check it out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Donald
    June 13th, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    Yeah, thanks for pointing people to the Hutchinson piece. I didn’t read the WSJ article, but Gretchen Reynolds at the NYT also parrots this nonsense–some weeks ago she even reported the results of two studies which contradicted each other as though they were in agreement. One said that the more you did endurance exercise, the lower your mortality rate, though the bulk of the benefits were obtained at lower mileage. The other study was the O’Keefe claim that “excessive” endurance exercise is harmful. For the casual reader Reynolds made it seem like the two studies both showed that there was a limit beyond which endurance exercise ceased to be beneficial.

    In general, I’ve noticed that fitness writers in the popular press seem to be hacks incapable of critical thought. Okay, I’m painting with a broad brush, but it’s true of many of them. If they took their job seriously they’d question some of these claims, but they’d rather go for the sensational.

  3. Gwilym
    September 29th, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    Whether running more than 30 miles a week is bad for you or not probably depends in the first instance where you are doing your 30 miles plus. If you are doing it on a cambered road you may get hip and knee problems and if you are doing it in a traffic congested air polluted area you may get respiratory problems. This is obvious and clear.

    On the other hand if you are doing your 30 miles a week on varied forest trails, alongside rivers and lakes, over mountain tracks and paths, that is to say in a natural running environment then you will probably benefit considerably.

    I am 65 years of age and regularly run more than 30 miles a week with no ill effects and have been doing so for more than 25 years.

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