“Hey…pssstt….Did you know that about 25% of people die in their sleep? Frankly this concerns me so much, I may not go to sleep again.”
Faced with that statement, most of us would scoff and continue with our life. So, why do we get so excited about people that die after they exercise? Is exercise so dangerous that we should all resolve to never exercise again? If exercise is so safe, why do athletes drop dead and why do people die in marathons? For those in my business, these questions are akin to the suggestion that since so many people die in their sleep, we shouldn’t sleep. But we often forget that the well-established safety of exercise appears to vanish when there is a high-profile athlete that dies during exercise.
Often times there is an underlying heart condition that is not known about that causes death when an individual exerts themselves. The exertion could be exercise, or could be something as simple as playing a video game which is what happened to one of the Arkansas football players this past November. Add those types of incidents with recent research that shows it is ‘safe’ to run in marathons - which makes the assumption that perhaps it was unsafe to run marathons at some point – makes it appear that there is a lot of concern about the safety of exercise. Are you taking your life in your hands when you are exercising? In short, the answer is “no”.
The American Heart Association has shown that the absolute risk of exercise-related death in high school and college atheletes is one in 133,000 men and one in 769,000 women! In adults (as opposed to young adults), the rate is somewhat higher: 1.5 cardiac events (not necessarily just death) for every 10,000 person-hours of exercise in men and 3.3 events in women over the same time frame. In other words, if you exercised an hour every day (we can all dream, right?), it would take you between 9-13 years before you had a significant risk of a cardiac event. To help you compare, the National Safety Council notes that your risk of dying in a car accident in a given year is 1 in 6500 and over the course of your lifetime, only 1 in 83.
Certainly, underlying heart disease increases the risk of problems during exercise, but still, the rates are fairly low, with the estimated rates being only one fatality per 752,365 patient-hours. However, having said that, underlying heart disease still raises the risk of death during exercise and should be dealt with accordingly. Some athletes do have heart conditions that they don’t know about and so thorough pre-participation screening is necessary to make sure that those that have the most serious abnormalities are not exposed to life-threatening conditions. Dr. Steve Crouse from Texas A&M, an expert in the area of prescreening recently was interviewed about this topic (click here for the interview) and talked about the importance of prescreening for anyone that is about to take on a vigorous exercise program.
In the end, exercise is not as risky as some other behaviors that are part of our everyday lives, especially if you’ve seen your physician before you start a new program. As a matter of fact, when you regularly exercise (at least 30 mins/day), you actually decrease your risk for death and a wide-variety of diseases (like breast and prostate cancer and dementia).
Take home message? Be active so you’ll be less likely to die during your sleep. Because sleeping is dangerous, haven’t you heard?
Be Active and Be Healthy.