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Does running prevent heart attacks?

Research shows that regular exercisers are still at risk for heart attacks if they don't watch what they eat

Many runners believe their daily miles give them a free pass to eat whatever they want, but research shows if you’re concerned about your heart health, you have to be mindful of what you eat. While runners can (and should) include less-healthy foods as a part of their diet, they should still focus on eating well to avoid putting themselves at risk for heart attacks.

Running doesn’t prevent heart attacks

Yes, regular exercise will lower your risk for heart attacks, but research shows your diet has a much greater role to play. Consider this study, published last year in the European Heart Journal, which showed lifelong male endurance athletes older than 40 had increased markers doctors use to predict heart attacks, including an increased amount of plaque in their heart arteries and scarring around their heart muscles, compared to their relatively sedentary counterparts.

Another study, published in the BMJ Journals in 2018, showed that out of 798 asymptomatic and seemingly healthy master athletes, 10 per cent had more than 70 per cent blockage of the arteries leading to their hearts. Finally, a 2017 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise found that men over 60 who had completed between 27 and 171 marathons had enough plaque in their arteries to increase their risk for heart attacks.

All of this evidence shows that while endurance training can improve other risk factors for heart attacks, it does not appear to reduce the buildup of plaque in your arteries. That is a job for your diet.

Runners: eat with your heart in mind

Heart attacks occur when plaques that build up in your arteries break off. This causes bleeding, which eventually leads to a blood clot that prevents blood flow to the heart. Exercise helps reduce your risk for heart attacks by making the plaque more stable (therefore less likely to break off), but your diet is what prevents plaques from forming in the first place.

As a runner, you burn a lot of calories during your training, so naturally, you’re going to eat more to fuel your activity level. If you replace the calories you lose with lots of sugar, too much meat, or other less-healthy choices, you are far more likely to have plaque build-up in your arteries.

To prevent or reduce the risk for plaque build-up, all runners should follow a heart-healthy diet that’s high in anti-inflammatory foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and other heart-healthy fats and oils. Here are a few examples of some heart-healthy foods runners can add to their grocery carts:

  • Black beans
  • Salmon and tuna
  • Olive oil
  • Walnuts and almonds
  • Edamame
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Oranges
  • Dark, leafy greens
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Flaxseed
  • Yogurt
  • Cherries and blueberries

This doesn’t mean that runners can’t enjoy other foods like meat, sugar and refined carbohydrates, but remember to eat those foods in moderation to keep your heart healthy.