tour-extremeThere is debate over whether regular extreme endurance exercise has a detrimental or beneficial effect on lifespan.

Clearly any exercise is better than no exercise at all as multiple studies have shown.  Yet a few small trials suggest there may be a J-shaped curve in that moderate exercise has the optimal effect on lifespan while extreme amounts of exercise might actually reduce it.  The latter concept has been attributed to the possibility of heart damage.

A new trial out of Europe, published today in the European Heart Journal dampens that concept.

The study looked at lifespan data on all French participants of the gruelling Tour de France bicycle race from 1947-2012.  Causes of death were obtained from 1968 onward.  These were compared against population norms for French males.

In all, of the 786 cyclists who participated over that timeframe, 208 (26%) had died by 2012.  Cancer and heart disease accounted for 61% of the deaths.

Overall, the Tour de France participants had a 40% lower mortality rate than the male population as a whole, including for heart disease and cancer, but was the same for external causes of death (such as car accidents).  This extrapolates to an average 6.3 year longer lifespan for these endurance athletes.

The authors did not report on lifelong exercise activity of these participants, and only looked at French cyclists not those from other countries.

They conclude:

We observed a substantially and significantly lower mortality in participants in the Tour de France, compared to the general male population. However, our results do not allow us to assess in detail the balance between positive effects of high level sports activity and selection of healthy elite athletes, vs. any potential deleterious effects of excessive physical exercise or alleged doping.

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