Olympic athletes spend many hours per day doing strenuous exercise getting ready for competition. Exercise scientists have been concerned that this amount of training, over a long period of time, could be doing permanent damage to the athlete’s health, especially to their heart.
Previous studies on athletes’ hearts
A Swedish study published in 2013 analyzed the hearts of men who completed a marathon cross-country ski race over multiple years. The findings were that the men who raced the fastest and competed most frequently were much more likely to develop a condition called “atrial fibrillation”. This is a problem where the heart beats irregularly at times, and this increases the risk of a blood clot forming in the heart leading to a possible stroke.
A 2011 Australian study used heart scanning techniques to study the hearts of elite endurance runners. The results here were disturbing as well. Heart scans a week following a race showed a noticeable enlargement of the lower right chamber of the heart (right ventricle), often associated with a diminished blood pumping ability.
Based on these and other studies, exercise researchers have been concerned for the long-term health of elite athletes. To bring more clarity to the topic, German scientists just published a more compelling and complete study in the journal Circulation. Fortunately, this study concluded that athletes don’t need to worry.
These researchers studied 33 men, aged 30 to 60, who had exercised on an Olympic level for many years. Some were former Olympic rowers and triathltets, and on average, the men were still exercising for an average of over 17 hours per week.
The researchers also studied 33 men of the same ages who were healthy, but not so physically active. Using the latest heart scanning techniques, they compared the hearts of the two groups, looking for any difference in the structure and the functioning of the heart.
The results from this Germany study agreed with the previous study that the hearts of the elite athletes appeared significantly different than the hearts of men who did not exercise much. The athletic hearts were larger, particularly again in the right ventricle heart chamber.
Conclusion: athletes’ hearts show no long-term problem
However, the functioning of the athlete’s hearts were not affected at all. Their hearts functioned fine, and in some cases, better than the men who did not exercise much. The athletes also tended to have a slower resting pulse rate (a sign of heart health), and had no increase in atrial fibrillation. Further, heart scans showed no scarring in the heart muscles in athletes, which supports the idea of no long-term damage.
The German scientists concluded that their study showed no worrisome problems because their study was looking at the more important issue of long-term damage, whereas the previous studies were restricted to the short-term. The German researchers concluded that any short-term problems resolved over time, and that even though the athlete’s hearts tended to be larger, that gave them no problems.
As far as your heart is concerned, if you are an athlete, it is a good idea to have a doctor check you out before any serious exercise program. Even better, try to see a specialist in sports medicine or cardiology.
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