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Potential Risks in Cardiovascular Endurance Training

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Is exercise really all that good for you? What about prolonged cardiovascular exercise? Find out whether or not there truly is such a thing as too much exercise, how much may be too much, and how to reduce your risks if needed.

Exercising for Health

How many times have you heard from parents, teachers, peers, and the TV that you need to exercise in order to stay healthy? Probably quite often. And for the most part, those people are right. Proper exercise can lead to lowered risk of heart disease, a drop in blood pressure, and a decreased risk of a whole host of other diseases, including cancer.

However, did you know that too much exercise, specifically exercise involving cardiovascular endurance training, may actually be bad for you?

What is Cardiovascular Endurance Training?

Before we describe why cardiovascular endurance training is in some instances risky, let's make sure we understand what this type of training is. Cardiovascular is a word that refers to cardio-, which means 'heart', and -vascular, which refers to the blood vessels of your body. So when someone tells you to 'do more cardio', they are referring to this kind of training.

Since we can't attach weights to your heart and blood vessels like we can to your arms during weightlifting, how do we train our cardiovascular system to become stronger and healthier? Well, we can engage in the following types of exercise:

  • Walking quickly
  • Running
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming

Those are all cardio exercises. None of these require that you lift any weights, but they do make you sweat and huff and puff without weightlifting. That's cardiovascular endurance training for you.

Potential Risks

Regular and moderate cardiovascular exercise is really good for you. However, too much of any good thing can be potentially bad. The same goes for too much cardio. Who is at risk of doing too much cardiovascular endurance training? Primarily 'extreme' athletes, including:

  • Ultramarathoners
  • Ironman triathlon competitors
  • Very long distance bicycle racers
  • Olympic cross country skiers

People who train and compete in these types of events can, over a long period of time, damage their cardiovascular system by simply putting too much stress and strain on it. This is especially true in cases where environmental factors, like high levels of surrounding heat, contribute to the problem as the heart and lungs have to work even harder during strenuous environmental conditions.

If an athlete chronically overloads the muscular chambers of the heart with blood during excessive endurance exercise, some of these chambers and other parts of the heart may become partially scarred over. This scarring of the heart actually may lead to irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) of the heart. It is possible that some of these arrhythmias, as well as other possible changes in the cardiovascular system stemming from over-exercise, may eventually lead to a heart attack, heart failure, or even cardiac arrest in some people who exercise too much. This is especially true for those who already have an underlying heart condition.

Risk Reduction

Think of exercise as being similar to a drug. If you follow your doctor's guidelines and take a moderate amount of the drug, it has few side effects and lots of beneficial effects. But if you take too much of the drug over a long period of time, then your body will suffer. The same thing goes for exercise. The benefits of regular, moderate exercise greatly outweigh any risks in most people. But if you overdo it, and overdo it for a long period of time, you're setting yourself up for potential damage to the heart and major blood vessels of the body, especially those that connect directly to the heart.

That said, for most people with no underlying cardiovascular problems, even strenuous exercise can yield great benefits compared to not exercising at all. In the long run and in otherwise healthy people, the risks of developing serious cardiovascular problems as a result of prolonged strenuous cardiovascular endurance training appear to be minimal compared to the risks of developing similar problems due to inactivity.

What does this all mean to you? If your doctor tells you that you have no underlying heart problems, then keep exercising!

The following guidelines can help you benefit from cardiovascular exercise while avoiding the potential adverse effects of over-exercise:

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