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Birkebeiner arrhythmia

Reports that long-term, high-intensity exercise could lead to heart arrhythmia has local endurance athletes, like these Birkebeiner skiers, concerned.

Call it the “aging boomer” syndrome, but I probably got as much feedback on my story about heart arrhythmias in endurance athletes as anything I’ve written in years – save for stories with “Scott Walker” in the headline.

The report apparently hit home with a lot of people who assumed they were doing something healthy with years of biking, running, cross country skiing and all the other outdoor pursuits we love here in Wisconsin.

Even a couple of doctors wrote me nice notes, which I took as the ultimate compliment since I’m no medical expert by any stretch. I’m just another 50+ guy hoping the body holds up long enough so I can keep doing the things I like for a few more years.

“Thanks so much for bringing this important emerging topic to the local press,” wrote Dr. Mark Timmerman, who founded the Sports Medicine Department at the Dean Clinic nearly 20 years ago and is now practicing in Spring Green.

Timmerman, 56, told me his own story of completing four Wisconsin Ironman triathlons, the American Birkebeiner, 10 marathons and six endurance bicycle races in Europe. But last year, Timmerman developed PVC’s (premature ventricular contractions), a form of cardiac arrhythmia.

“After an extensive evaluation and eventually a visit to Dr. James O’Keefe in Kansas City (one of the lead researchers in this area), we have determined that my lifetime of endurance exercise is the likely culprit,” he writes.

Several others shared similar tales, including Lionel Martin, who used to be a fixture on the local aerobic sports scene until being diagnosed with an exercise-induced hypertrophy of the heart, or an enlarging of the heart muscle, aka “athlete’s heart.”

“This is why you don’t see me skiing or cycling much lately,” writes Martin, who now lives in Portland, Maine, where he runs his business, Integrated Bodywork Therapies.

Martin claims he’s been “ostracized” by the fitness industry for posting stories about the link between a lifetime of aerobic exercise and irregular heart function.

Indeed, you sure don’t read much in the mainstream sports press about the issue – although Outside magazine did broach the topic briefly following the release last year of the Swedish study about XC skiers and atrial fibrillation, the most common heart arrhythmia.

Most of the coverage has been confined to the medical journals, including this groundbreaking 2013 report in Medscape and this new report from Brian Olshansky from the University of Iowa and Renee Sullivan from the University of Missouri, The Physician and Sportsmedicine.

At the same time, with the nation battling an obesity epidemic and heart disease the No. 1 cause of early death, the last thing the public needs to hear is that exercise isn’t as good for you as everybody says.

“I just wonder how you know what is too much?” writes Kay Lum, a long-time fitness athlete from Fitchburg. “It’s a tad scary.”

The operative word here is probably moderation. Running competitively won’t necessarily cause an irregular heartbeat. But running 100 miles a week for years on end might cause some problems, bad knees if nothing else.

One commentator asked why I was going to ski the Birkie if I have a history of heart issues. That’s a good question and I won’t brush it off by saying “because I already sent in my $100.”

But as I tried to point out, an irregular heartbeat isn’t considered a major medical problem for most people and the type I’ve developed is pretty far down the list of circulatory system ailments.

“In the wider scheme of things, it’s nothing,” my cardiologist has assured me.

At the same time, realizing that a lifetime of riding bikes, skiing marathons and generally staying super active might have caused my heart to start skipping some beats was sure an eye-opener. Glad I could share the story.

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