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Study Hall: Marathon runners are at low risk for heart attacks

For Study Hall each week, we sort through the deluge of new medical studies and wordy white papers to bring you one that deserves your attention—in plain, healthy English.

NYC marathon


Contrary to what media reports may have lead you to believe, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (published January 12, 2012) found that running in marathons is associated with a lower risk of heart attack than lots of other (gentler) kinds of exercise.

The study: Researchers examined data from U.S. marathons between 2000 and 2010. They found 59 cases of cardiac arrests—40 at marathons and 19 at half marathons—among almost 11 million race participants. They completed lengthy reviews of each case via medical records and interviews with the individuals who suffered the heart attacks (or their relatives.)

The results: The risk of cardiac arrest for race participants was low. In fact, it was equal to or less than the rates among triathletes, college athletes, and…casual joggers! While the number of heart attacks went up over the ten period, the rise was attributed to an overall jump in the number of people enrolled in marathons. (And most incidents were related to runners with undiagnosed heart abnormalities.)

What it means: If you’re itching to do a marathon, don’t let fear of a heart attack stop you. (Although a pre-race physical, to make sure you’re in tip-top shape, is never a bad idea.) Concentrate on avoiding shin splints, instead. —Lisa Elaine Held