Exercise is bad for you. It’s something I’ve heard a lot on the island recently, and I can see why. However, not exercising is worse!
We have worried about exercising too vigorously since the time of the Ancient Greeks. The messenger Pheidippides ran 150 miles in two days when the Persians invaded at Marathon in 490 BC. When he reached the finishing line he gasped, “We have won” – and died on the spot. In 1909 a group of eminent doctors wrote to The Times saying that, “school and cross-country races exceeding one mile in distance were wholly unsuitable for boys under the age of nineteen, as the continued strain involved is apt to cause permanent injury to the heart and other organs.” And when the 52 year old running guru Jim Fixx died of a heart attack in 1984 while out for his morning jog – well, that proved it. (except that he lived nine years longer than his dad). And yet, doctors still want you to work up a sweat five times a week! What’s going on? The short answer to the so-called ‘exercise paradox’ is that pushing yourself is slightly dangerous – while you’re doing it. While you’re exercising your risk of dying from a heart attack just about doubles. That’s still a small number if you’re young or female; a slightly larger number if you’re older or male. But, when you stop, the body’s metabolism and hormone levels change for the next two days in a profoundly healthy way. So you end up much better off. Sudden death during exercise happens, even in young people who reckon they’re healthy. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t exist. But it’s incredibly rare – one study on American nurses put the risk at one death for every 36 million hours of exercise. And almost all of those who collapse have something wrong with their hearts. This is why there has recently been such a lot of talk about screening young players as they do in Italy. Since 1982 it has been compulsory there for all kids taking part in sport to have a medical examination and an ECG, an electrical test on the heart. About 2% need further tests, and some of these are no doubt disappointed to be told to stop playing completely. But there has been a 90% fall in the number of sudden deaths during exercise in Italy and the pressure is building to introduce it here.
Here’s the trick. Don’t push yourself. Build it up slowly. Be careful when you get over 50. And listen to your body – stop if it hurts. It is important to be aware of what your body is telling you. One study found that almost half of all athletes who died during exercise had had symptoms, like chest pain, in the previous weeks. And you don’t have to push yourself to the limit to get huge health benefits. The chances of sudden cardiac death for a middle aged man like me during a 30 minute brisk walk is tiny, compared to my haring after a fit teenager during an all-ages shinty game. Despite all these warnings, exercise is great for your health. Researchers in Seattle looked at the 145 people who had died suddenly in one year in the city. Those who exercised vigorously were two thirds less likely to die than those who were couch potatoes. And doesn’t all that running knacker your knees? Well, no actually. A study in California followed middle aged runners for 20 years. At the end 32% of the non runners had knee arthritis and only 20% of the runners. But different sports do mean different risks. There were 14 injuries reported by 1000 runners in one study over a year, 64 by football players and 96 by rugby players. 1 in 600 horse riders are injured every year, particularly novice riders. Horse riding in Australia was found to be the third most dangerous sport after motor racing and power boating.
So, exercising is much better for you than not exercising. Some pastimes are safer than others. And if you’re a middle aged man like me – be sensible!
I felt an icy trickle down my back when I heard the news. If you can remember back that far, last month’s report that our memory starts to get worse in our forties was a bit of a wakeup call. Five out of six people who get to 80 won’t get dementia. But one in six people will. It is set to become one of the most important features of care on Tiree as the rate is going to double in the next 40 years. Indeed, it is very much in our thinking at Cùram as we plan how we could look after the next generation.
Two thirds of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. This is when the brain cells get clogged up with protein sludge. Another one in five have what is called vascular dementia – lots of tiny strokes, one after the other. There are other sorts of dementia too, and it is becoming increasingly important to try and find out which sort people have. The treatment is slightly different and the dementias progress in different ways.
But can we do anything about the wearing out of what has been called the most complex thing in the universe – the human brain? We’re not sure, to be honest. Dementia is such a slow process: you would have to take a thousand people, do something to one group, nothing to another –
and wait twenty years to see what works best. But exercising mind and body seems to be the key. A lot of the evidence about this comes from the poor old laboratory mouse (look away now if you find this distasteful). There is a strain of mice now which has been bred to get dementia – at 7 months of age they are showing advanced signs. But if they are given free access to a running wheel from their first weeks they are less likely to develop dementia changes, in their behaviour and in their brains. And if you allow the same strain of pregnant mice to run as much as they want on a treadmill, their offspring have less dementia changes in their brains when they grow up too. The brain needs a lot of energy, and a lot of blood. Keeping your circulation healthy is important. On the medical side this means good blood pressure, good cholesterol and good sugar. I’m sorry to say – if you have diabetes you’re a bit more likely to get dementia in old age.
And a big study in humans this year in Texas gives a useful pointer. 17 years ago they put 60 000 people (yes, 60 000 – they don’t do things by halves in Texas!) on a treadmill and measured how fit they were. Then they looked at how many of them died from dementia over the years. The fittest two thirds in the study were half as likely to die from dementia as the least fit. Of course, that doesn’t prove it was the exercise that did it. People who keep physically fit are more likely to be healthy in other ways too. But another study found that the more muscle people have, the less likely they are to get dementia.
On the mental front, another smaller study recently found that older people who used their brains a lot when they were younger had healthier looking brain scans. And we’re not talking Einsteins here. The best way to use your brain? Talk to people – and be interested in what they say. We use huge amounts of brain power remembering who has said what, to whom. Sitting and watching television look like the worst things to be doing if you want to keep your brain active.
Dementia is not a welcoming thought and there are no guarantees. The fittest granny in the world can get dementia if that’s in her nature. But, if walking and talking can keep it at bay for a bit, I’m up for having a go!
On Saturday 30th April the annual Tiree 10k Fun Run took place in glorious sunshine with plenty of local residents and visitors taking part. There were 173 runners and walkers altogether including Power Pushers and Kids Fun Runners. Once again the Tiree Pipe Band started everyone off along the beach and provided a great setting for the start of the event.
Out on the course the warm weather made it hard for the runners but there were still some fast times with Tim Brand from Lochaber coming over the line first in 36:36 closely followed by Tiree’s Owain Williams in 37:21. Owain has knocked 2 minutes off his time from last year and is running the Edinburgh Marathon later this month. Also finishing strongly was Jennifer MacKinnon in 48:06, which gained her first place in her age group.
The kids events saw the closest finish ever with Colin, Finn and Jack sprinting for the line well ahead of the rest of the field. Jack managed to cross the line first and a great performance from all three. Rowan was first back for the girls just a few minutes later.
Out on the 10km walk there seemed to be some odd characters with Captain America and Mr Blobby making it all the way round. Among others they were raising funds for the Gobi Desert Trek. Well done to them and all the walkers who completed the course.
Once again I’d just like to thank everyone who helped on the day or contributed towards the event and in particular the event sponsors. Thanks also to the people who live or work along the actual course for their patience as 173 runners and walkers passed by!
The event seems to get better each year and this time it’s also helped raise funds for the Tiree Pipe Band, the Duke of Edinburgh group, the PTA, the Tiree Sports Foundation and the Gobi Desert trek. Thanks everyone for making it such a fantastic day.
Have a look on the website for full results and the date for next year’s event will be announced soon.