Bigger is not always better

Endurance athletes with small and lean bodies have higher life expectancy than bigger power athletes

endurancevpower
Mo Farah (left) runs longer. Usain Bolt (right) runs faster. Compare their body shape. Who is better?

Bigger is popular. It’s synonymous to growth, speed and winning. It leads legions of men, and women, to gyms and crossfit centers to increase muscles and chest size. Compared to endurance, strength training is naturally more sexy.

When compared to a sedentary lifestyle, strength training is indeed a good choice. Yet, it appears that endurance training leads to higher longevity.

A Finnish research shows endurance athletes (long distance running, cross country skiiing) had higher life expectancy (avg 75.6 years) than team sports athletes (avg 73.9) or power athletes (avg 71.9). All had higher life expectancy than sedentary population (avg 69.9).

This means bigger is not always better. Training with weights might not be better compared to running outside for a couple of hours. Taking extra protein and creatin supplements might not be better than caloric restriction.

Other studies show there is negative correlation between body height and longevity. Simply, the taller you are, the more likely you are to die sooner than a person who is smaller. This contradicts popular notions. Smaller people are healthier than taller people. This has also been proven in animals where smaller mice, dogs or monkeys live on average longer.

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Height inversely correlate with CHD mortailty

Scientists hypothesize smaller bodies have proportionally larger organs, lower insulin growth hormone (IGF-1), less free radicals, lower core body temperature, less visceral fat and less risk to cardiovascular disease or cancer. In contrast, larger, taller bodies have increased chronic diseases and lower longevity (Cancer, CVD, CHD, diabetes). These include more rapid telomere reduction, excessive cell replication, increased free radicals, and relatively smaller organs. In addition, the relation of height and body size to levels of insulin, IGF-1, C-reactive protein and sex hormone binding protein may explain the negative correlation between height and longevity.

Taking the size and height factors, we can conclude that smaller and leaner individuals have increased longevity compared to taller and bigger individuals.

While you can’t do much with your height, here are a few take-aways:

  • If you are naturally tall, this often means you are relatively wealthier compared to smaller individuals. Take advantage in this by getting better healthcare, better nutrition and better exercise.
  • If you have to choose today, prefer an endurance sport compared to a power sport. It can be running, cycling, swimming or cross-country skiing. Running is cheap and accessible.
  • Picking up strength training is not a bad choice and always much better than a sedentary lifestyle. It builds a strong foundation; you are also less prone to injuries as well as improve your overall speed, stamina and peak power in other disciplines.
  • Be careful with chronic extreme endurance exercise. There is nothing wrong with a yearly marathon. However, regular marathons or ultra-running (> 50 miles) cause excessive ‘wear-and-tear’ damage on the heart, inducing adverse structural and electrical remodelling. This offsets some of the longevity improvements by endurance training on cardiovascular health.
  • Be careful with supplements, such as whey protein, creatin, and any other substance sold in plastic bottles. These promote maximum muscle development. This is not always better.

References:

  • Sarna S , Sahi T , Koskenvuo M , Kaprio J. Increased life expectancy of world class male athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise [1993, 25(2):237-244]
  • T. T. Samaras and L. H. Storms. Impact of height and weight on life span. Bulletin World Health Organization (WHO). 1992; 70(2): 259–267.
  • Thomas T Samaras, Harold Elrick, Lowell H Storms. Is height related to longevity? Life Sciences. Volume 72, Issue 16, 7 March 2003, Pages 1781–1802
  • Yasuo Kagawa. Impact of westernization on the nutrition of Japanese: Changes in physique, cancer, longevity and centenarians. Preventive Medicine Volume 7, Issue 2, June 1978, Pages 205-217

10 thoughts on “Bigger is not always better”

    1. terrible blog misusing studies. higher bmi leads to higher mortality. – not higher absolute body mass at the same bmi. a 6’0″ person at 160lb should live as long as someone 5’7.4″ at 140lb assuming same diet, exercise, sleep and all.

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    2. A 2002 meta-analysis study by Tomas Samaras did indeed conclude that “shorter people have lower cancer mortality and the same or lower all- cause mortality compared to taller people”.

      Taking your example, a 6’0″ person at 160lb might have a lower life expectancy compared to someone who is 5’7.4″ at 140lb, assume same diet, exercise, sleep, healthcare.

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  1. I liked the article, it made me feel smug about the decades I spent running.

    Regretfully, a torn posterior tibial tendon prevents me from running. I put in my hours on the elliptical, but it’s not outside, I consistently overheat, and I miss the impact, the thud.

    Yet there’s a problem: certain somatotypes are drawn to certain sports because of success. The ectomorphic marathoner is not likely to succeed in football or rugby, and an attempt at powerlifting would likely result in torn tendons. Similarly linebackers and power lifters have problems with distance running: there’s a lot of impact.

    And we know that core obesity (endomorphism) carries a predisposition to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

    So: is it the build that makes the athlete or the athlete that makes the build? Of course, the answer is that they influence each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There must be a relationships between builds and running. Look at the builds of elite long distance runners : lean and thin. I recognize I don’t have that type of build. I’d be more of a 100m or 400m but I still love running 10ks or a half marathon for the reasons written above. I’m still fairly new at running (it’s my first “serious” year) so I don’t have (yet?) an injury. I’ve looked into it and i take recovery and rest very seriously so I don’t get injured

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