How much exercise is too much? Georgia Southern researchers study cardiovascular health in ultramarathon runners to better understand impacts of physical activity

Georgia Southern Associate Professor Gregory Grosicki, Ph.D., and a fellow researcher work through the night to collect cardiovascular measures on race finishers.

Is too much of a good thing actually a bad thing? 

That’s what researchers in Georgia Southern’s Biodynamics and Human Performance Center aim to find out through a recent study of 75 ultramarathon runners during the 50th anniversary of the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run (WSER) in California. 

The study focuses on the benefits of physical activity beyond the typical recommended amount by examining the cardiovascular effects of extreme exercise in the WSER, a 100-mile trail race through the Sierra Nevada mountains that climbs more than 18,000 feet and descends nearly 23,000 feet before runners reach the finish.

“We know that exercise is beneficial for health, and national and international public health agencies, such as The American Heart Association, advise that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week,” said Gregory Grosicki, Ph.D., associate professor in the Waters College of Health Professions Department of Health Sciences and Kinesiology.

“Moreover, there is a dose-response relation between exercise and health, whereby an individual can gain even more health benefits by being active for up to 300 minutes per week,” he continued. “However, it is uncertain whether exercising for greater than 300 minutes will confer any additional health benefits, and importantly, excess exercise may actually detract from cardiovascular health.”

It is important to note, Grosiciki said, that this apparent “partial loss of health benefits” from excess exercise is theoretical for the time being.

“Studies such as ours will help to determine whether this hypothesis is valid, and if so, what can be done about it,” he said.

This is the third year Grosicki and colleagues attended WSER to collect data on some of the world’s most extreme athletes. Previous studies focused on changes in gut health during exercise, which, believe it or not, may actually be linked to changes in cardiovascular health

Grosicki recruited 10 research faculty and students from Auburn University, Florida State University, San Francisco State University and the University of Colorado Anschutz to assist in the data collection.

“We measured blood pressure, arterial stiffness, heart size and function and kidney blood flow, and we collected blood and urine from 75 athletes pre-race, 55 of which completed the race and returned for post-race measures,” stated Grosicki. “This is, without question, the largest and most comprehensive dataset ever to be collected at a single event like this.”

WSER begins in Olympic Valley, California, and ends in Auburn, California, and is considered one of the oldest and most competitive ultramarathons in the United States. Participation is highly selective, and if chosen, athletes have only 30 hours to cover the distance.

The Western States Endurance Run Research Foundation funded this project.

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