unhealthy athlete, blood pressure, athlete, health

Fit—But Unhealthy

Certain health issues tend to crop up in even the most dedicated exercisers.

Because you can't judge a book—or a body—by it's cover: “It’s possible to be fit but unhealthy,” says Lawrence Creswell, M.D., a heart surgeon at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and avid runner, cyclist and swimmer. Men, in particular, run the risk of being unhealthy athletes. “When men leave an environment of a school sports program or a framework where medical care may be built in and they don't have medical problems, it’s possible, for example, they don't have their blood pressure measured for years,” he says.

Overlooking the doctor’s office, even in the face of a dedication to training sessions, can mean health hurdles to jump through in years to come. Here, five issues that tend to crop up in the fittest bodies: 

1. High Blood Pressure: Smoking or lack of exercise aren't the likely culprits here, but a salty diet, decongestants or nasal sprays, caffeine, and supplements could also be to blame, says Creswell. “People who have high blood pressure have an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, so monitoring it is worthwhile,” he says. If you don’t, your numbers might be high, and you might be asymptomatic.“There is a consequence over time of high blood pressure, and athletes should recognize that.” Your doc can help you hone in on caffeine intake or stress that could be unknowingly raising your BP.

2. Dental Woes: Athletes may have enviable bodies, but not mouths. A study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that Olympians have terrible dental health: 55 percent of athletes in the study had cavities, 45 percent had dental erosion; and 76 percent had gingivitis. For those of us going for personal bests, long training sessions fueled by sugary drinks can still leave your teeth craving a cleaning—and leave bacteria flourishing. Plus, men between 18 and 29 are the least likely to see the dentist, according to a recent Gallup poll. But cozy up with your dentist and your trainer: Some research has linked poor dental hygiene to cardiovascular disease.  

3. Skin Cancer: Marathon runners have an increased risk of melanoma skin cancer, says Debra Jaliman, M.D., and author of Skin RulesThe culprit is excess UV exposure, but also negligence to protective measures that work. “In one of the major studies done, only 56 percent of people wore sunscreen regularly,” Jaliman notes. While there’s no need to take all of your training runs indoors, slathering on a broad-spectrum, SPF 30 sunblock that’s sweat-proof should be considered part of your warm-up routine. 

4. Respiratory Infections: While exercise is known to boost immune function—helping you fend of disease—all long-distance runners know about the sniffles that come along with lengthy jogs. There’s science behind it: In large doses, running can suppress immunity, says Jaliman. This effect can be enough to up your risk for respiratory infections and colds. One study found that while 30 minutes of moderate exercise didn’t hit the immune system negatively, 120 minutes did. Other research finds just 90 minutes of intense exercise can suppress the immune system for between 3 and 72 hours. Besides staying on top of immunizations like flu shots, consider stashing some hand sanitizer in your gym bag. 

5. Cardiovascular Risks: There’s been some attention in the scientific community surrounding potential heart risks that come with long endurance events like ultra-marathons, says Creswell. In general, exercise boosts cardiovascular health, but if you have heart difficulties or an unknown underlying condition, it may exacerbate the problem, he notes. If you’re taking up endurance, play it safe by checking in with your doctor. “For someone fit, sometimes it’s hard to know all about your health by yourself,” Creswell says. Watch for five symptoms that could signal an issue, too, he says: chest pain that comes on during exercise and subsides when you stop, unusual shortness of breath, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, or unexplained or unusual fatigue with exercise.