Purpose: Whether very vigorous physical activity bestows on the participant more health benefits or more adverse effects is unclear: we investigated whether men participating in competitive endurance sports in middle and old age are at increased risk of heart attacks as well as of lower-limb osteoarthritis and disability.
Methods: In our cohort study with an 11-yr follow-up, we studied 269 male orienteering runners (mean age 48.6 yr at baseline; range 37-61), who in 1984 were placed among the 60 best in their master orienteer age-class in Finland, and 188 male nonsmoking controls (mean age 50.4 yr; range 39-61) classified as healthy at 20 yr of age and without overt ischemic heart disease up until 1985. We followed mortality and studied the prevalence of questionnaire-reported physician-diagnosed diseases and disabilities at the end of the follow-up in late 1995.
Results: Two (0.7%) of the 269 runners and 10 (5.3%) of the 188 controls had suffered myocardial infarctions during the follow-up, the age-adjusted odds ratio (95% confidence interval) being 0.15 (0.03-0.67) in runners compared with controls (P = 0.0059). At follow-up, orienteering runners reported knee osteoarthritis and knee pain more often than did the controls, whereas the occurrence of hip osteoarthritis and hip pain did not differ. Disability due to hip or knee pain after the same everyday activities tended to be less in the runners.
Conclusion: In top-level master endurance athletes having a long-term training background and participating in competitive endurance sports, the risk both of heart attack and of lower-limb disability is low.