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when exercise equals a cheeseburger

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal caught our eye -- it compared the health effects of running marathons with eating cheeseburgers. While we question some of the points raised in the study quoted in the article, the study raises an important issue: When too much exercise is just that -- too much.


"While we often encourage you to work out as hard as you can, we occasionally see people risking the impact of overtraining," Brent Holten says. "The key is finding a balance between pushing yourself enough to reap the benefits of exercise without pushing so hard that you may harm yourself."

The article goes on to explain how endurance athletes have long enjoyed a made-of-iron image. But amid mounting evidence that extraordinary doses of exercise may diminish the benefits of modest amounts, that image is being smudged. The benefits of this level of exercise, according to the study quoted in the article, may disappear beyond 30 miles of running a week, as an example.

The improved blood pressure, cholesterol levels and robust cardiac health that exercise has been proven to bestow? Among extreme exercisers, those blessings may be offset partially by an increased vulnerability to atrial fibrillation and coronary-artery plaque, suggest other recent studies. In the face of this research, long-standing skepticism about the possibility of "exercise overdose" is softening among many sports physicians. 

Yet these specialists are divided over whether any warning is warranted, according to the article. For every American who exercises to extremes, there are thousands who don't exercise at all -- and who might embrace any exercise-related warnings as cause for staying sedentary. Moreover, the evidence for extreme-exercise hazards is far from conclusive -- and is contradicted by other studies suggesting the health benefits of exercise may accrue to infinity.

Read on for tips on finding the level of exercise that's right for you.