Why Running is Really Good for Us
An Interview with World-Renowned Heart Surgeon, Dr. Dwight Lundell
By Todd R. Nordstrom
As the front door opened, I swore I could see the waft of garlic and butter tumble beneath my nose. Sunday’s ritual was a long mid-morning run along the irrigation canals in Phoenix, followed by a late afternoon feeding frenzy at my Mother-in-law’s condo.
“You hungry?” asked Keith, my mother-in-law’s long time partner and do-it-yourself chef extraordinaire. “I’ve got twelve pounds of crab legs in the pot, garlic mashers, cheesy garlic bread, and a prime rib in the oven.”
Although you’re thinking, “that sounds fantastic,” this was Keith’s version of meal planning for four adults and three children under the age of five. It’s a massive amount of food.
“I’m starving,” I replied, completely seduced by the aroma. “I just came back from an 18-mile run.”
Keith rolled his eyes. “Running that far can’t be healthy,” he said, heading back to the kitchen. "It just can't be."
I stood there, pondering my slimmer than average “near-marathon-physique” in a wall-sized mirror that overlooks the living room of the condo. “Why is running good for me?”
Those of us that run know that great feeling (most of the time) that comes during and after an intense workout. We understand the “high”. We understand the endorphin rush. And, ever since gym class, in elementary school, most of us have had it drilled into our brains that exercise was, in fact, good for us. But, what does that mean? And, what are the facts?
Here’s where you’ll think I’m a little bit silly. As a professional writer, I had just finished co-authoring a book with a world-renowned heart surgeon, Dr. Dwight Lundell, about the cure for heart disease--and how exercise plays a primary role. Shouldn’t I already know the answers to these questions? I knew a ton of facts, and could spout of numerous studies. Yet, I had no quick answer for Keith's comment. Why is running good for me?
Of course, it has been proven that people who get more exercise have fewer heart attacks. One of the earliest recordings of such findings was established in 1953 by a classic study from England, which demonstrated that among 31,000 bus drivers and conductors, bus drivers had three times the heart attack rate, and more than twice the death rate from heart attack than did the conductors. Why?
Well, it seems conductors were required to consistently climb the stairs to the second deck of the bus—they exercised. The bus drivers, on the other hand, were sedentary. Prior to this study there were almost no publications focusing on physical fitness and cardiovascular disease. Today, there are almost 10,000 publications per year.
But, still, does anyone really know why exercise is good for us? Or do we all just do it because studies prove it. What is the biology behind all the studies?
With a slight bit of embarrassment, I called my co-author after dinner that night. “Dr. Lundell, why is running good for me?”
Lundell chuckled, ”That’s a question more people should be asking. Oddly enough, the beneficial effects of exercise are just now beginning to be understood at the biological level—figuring out why exercise actually reduces the risk of disease. And, as much as your knees may hate me saying this, the rest of your body is going to love me—exercise, biologically, reduces inflammation.”
Yes, my knees did hate him at that second—they were plump with inflammation. But, was the rest of me jumping for joy?
Maybe you’ve seen or heard recent news reports about inflammation on TV and radio—the discussion is all over the news. New science is revealing daily the correlation between inflammation and cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, stroke, type II diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and Alzheimer's.
“These disorders are characterized by sedentary lifestyles and excess body weight,” says Dr. Lundell. “Systemic low-level inflammation is a consequence, and a cause of this environment.”
C’mon Dr. Lundell, that seems like cumbersome Doctor-lingo.
“You want the simple form?” he asks. “Umm, basically excess body fat contributes to the inflammatory process by producing pro inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are signaling molecules that trigger the inflammatory pathways, which are the basis for all these chronic diseases. Elevated levels of pro inflammatory cytokines are present in all the diseases (previously mentioned) as well as acute and chronic depression. So, less body fat equals less inflammation—for the most part.”
“Okay, so an 18-miler is good for me because I’m burning calories and decreasing my body fat?”
“Well, even a mile is good for you,” says Dr. Lundell. “It’s not just about burning, it’s also about building—we need the lean muscle mass. Contracting muscle fibers produce other types of cytokines (named myokines because they are derived from muscle) that are profoundly anti-inflammatory and have a beneficial effect on metabolism, mood, and brain function. These myokines counteract the pro inflammatory cytokines, derived from fat and have a positive effect on the heart, brain, bones, arteries, and the immune system.”
So, basically, the cytokines from muscle are good, and the cytokines from fat are bad—an interesting twist when you consider that we’re not just carrying around extra fat or muscle. Both are creating chemicals that affect the rest of our body.
Even more interesting is the fact that Dr. Lundell says inflammation was the only common risk factor present in all 5,000 plus open-heart surgeries he performed in his 25 years in practice. And, it became his focus for study when he realized that there might be more to the inflammatory process than ever imagined—inflammation isn’t just a side-effect.
“Running is good for you for many reasons,” he says. “But, as far as reducing you’re your risk of disease, it’s good for you because it reduces low-grade inflammation.”
Lundell paused. “Where are you anyway? And, why are you calling me so late on a Sunday night?”
“I just had dinner at my mother-in-law’s house.”
“Oh, what’d you eat?” he asked suspiciously.
“Put it this way,” I said. “I’m running again tomorrow.”
What Advice Does Dr. Lundell Offer to Reduce Inflammation?
Build Lean Muscle Mass: “Endurance sports are fantastic for the heart,” says Dr. Lundell. “However, resistance training will maintain and increase lean muscle mass. Offset your running or biking with resistance training.”
Reduce Sugar and Increase Good Fats: “Don’t focus on what you eat,” says Dr. Lundell. “Focus on what your body does with what you eat. This where education is key. Carbohydrates and sugars increase inflammation. Good fats reduce inflammation. Get your Omega 3’s.
Live Like Your Ancestors: “In the early 1900’s heart disease was almost unheard of,” says Dr. Lundell. “Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers and we need to think like hunters and gatherers when we go to the grocery store—lean meats, fruits, and vegetables.”
Find Balance: “Stress can create inflammation,” he adds. “The point of living healthy is living happy. Find balance in work, family life, hobbies and fitness. The goal isn’t just to live longer. The goal is to live well longer.”
About Todd Nordstrom
Todd has built a reputation and a career being the voice of the public. At age 15 he was hosting talk radio programs, asking the questions that uncover the truth in a world of biased communication. In the past few decades, his career has evolved into numerous mediums—leading creative teams, writing speeches for political and business icons, and interviewing many of the country’s most renowned thought leaders. Today, Todd is the Editor of Go Jobing magazine, Co-Author of the book The Cure for Heart Disease: Truth Will Save a Nation, and an avid marathon runner. He lives with his wife and three children in Scottsdale, Arizona.
About Dr. Dwight Lundell
Dr. Lundell's experience in Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgery over the last 25 years includes certification by the American Board of Surgery, the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Dr. Lundell was a pioneer in "Off-Pump" heart surgery reducing surgical complications and recovery times. He's in the Beating Heart Hall of Fame and has been listed in Phoenix Magazine’s Top Doctors at least 5 times. In his career, Dr. Lundell has performed more than 5,000 open-heart surgeries. He lives in Paradise Valley Arizona and competes in triathlons in his spare time.
For more information about The Cure for Heart Disease go to: www.thecureforheartdisease.net