Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Health Benefits: Running Marathons vs. Practicing Yoga

Legend has it that the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens — and then collapsed and died. That was the original marathon. Last year, more than a half-million Americans ran marathons — an all-time record. And that's partly because of groups like Team in Training. In addition to the record number of runners these days, there are a record number of marathon races — more than 625 last year alone.

The Eastern practice of yoga has become a modern-day symbol of peace, serenity and well-being in the West. More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, according to the 2012 Yoga in America study, with practitioners spending more than $10 billion a year on yoga-related products and classes.

Marathon: The problem is that for those less-fit runners, the damage to the heart accumulated over the strenuous race can last for months after crossing the finish line. The good news is you will recover, but you may be vulnerable to other heart problems before you do, according to a 2010 study. It's extraordinarily rare, but marathons have been known to severely hurt the heart from time to time. About one in every 184,000 runners "succumbs to cardiac arrest after a marathon", Discovery reported. The runners most at risk have an underlying heart condition, so it's important to consult with your doctor before entering into a training program of any kind. Dr. Larose says there is no substitute for a visit to a healthcare professional and, when appropriate, to get the V02 test to measure risks to your heart.

Yoga: People with mild to moderate hypertension might benefit from a yoga practice, as a study from University of Pennsylvania researchers found that it could help to lower their blood pressure levels. Researchers found that people who practiced yoga had greater drops in blood pressure compared with those who participated in a walking/nutrition/weight counseling program. As part of a healthy lifestyle, yoga may lower cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, according to Harvard Health Publications.

Immune System
Marathon: A regular workout routine can help you stay sniffle-free through cold and flu season, but too much exercise can actually have the opposite effect. (Everything in moderation.) Research shows that after long, taxing workouts like marathons, immune systems are depleted for up to weeks after the race, leading to "2-6 fold increase in the risk of developing an upper respiratory infection," Mike Gleeson, a professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K. said in a statement.

Yoga: Yoga's stress-busting powers may come from its ability to lessen the activity of proteins that are known to play a role in inflammation, according to a study published last year from University of California, Los Angeles researchers. "The goal of the study was to determine if meditation might alter the activity of inflammatory and antiviral proteins that shape immune cell gene expression," said Dr. Helen Lavretsky. "Our analysis showed a reduced activity of those proteins linked directly to increased inflammation." A small Norwegian study suggested that yoga's many healthy benefits might come from its ability to alter gene expression in immune cells.

Marathon: An estimated 30 to 50 percent of distance runners experience intestinal problems related to exercise. Many physiological facts help explain why diarrhea is a concern for athletes, particularly athletes in running-type sports: "jostling" of the intestines; reduced blood flow to the intestines as the body diverts blood flow to the working muscles; changes in intestinal hormones; altered absorption; dehydration. Drinking too much water, known as hyponatremia, is very rare but research suggests that marathon runners may be one of the more at-risk populations.

Yoga: Adding yoga to a typical diabetes care regimen could result in steady blood sugar levels, according to a 2011 Diabetes Care study. Reuters reported that just three months of yoga in addition to diabetes care resulted in a decrease in body mass index, as well as no increases in blood sugar levels. A 2010 Boston University study showed that 12 weeks of yoga could help to reduce anxiety and increase gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels in the brain (low levels of GABA have been linked with depression and anxiety disorders).

Marathon: Preexisting knee conditions or injuries can be made worse by the constant pounding. Some evidence suggests that marathon training might be more detrimental to the knees of overweight people. How your foot strikes the pavement as well as increasing your mileage or pace too quickly could also contribute to knee problems, LiveScience reported. There are few running injuries more commonplace than shin splints. Marathon training is the perfect recipe of constant pounding and the "'terrible toos' -- running too hard, too fast or for too long," according to the Mayo Clinic.

Yoga: Researchers at West Virginia University found Iyengar Yoga to be more effective in reducing pain and improving mood than standard medical treatment among those with chronic lower back problems. A German study published in The Journal of Pain showed that four weeks of practicing Iyengar yoga (a type of Hatha yoga that stresses proper alignment and the use of props) is effective in reducing pain intensity in adults suffering from chronic neck pain. A recent Colorado State University study found that Bikram yoga -- a form of yoga in which a series of 26 postures are performed for 90 minutes in a heated room -- is linked with increased shoulder, lower back and hamstring flexibility, as well as greater deadlift strength and decreased body fat, compared with a control group.

Marathon: But science doesn't really know how you should spend those crucial couple of weeks after a big race for optimal recovery. A Danish study in 2007 tested the muscular and neuromuscular characteristics of eight marathoners after a race (average time: 2:34:40). Five days later, the runners' maximum voluntary muscular contraction was still reduced compared to pre-race values even though the contractile properties of the muscle itself were back to normal, suggesting that the loss of strength was neuromuscular.

Yoga: Just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga -- an ancient form of the practice that emphasizes physical postures rather than flow or sequences -- can improve cognitive function, boosting focus and working memory. In a University of Illinois study, participants performed significantly better on tests of brain functioning after yoga, as compared to their performance after 20 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise.

More information:
» Sackler Gallery: "The Art of Transformation" Yoga Exhibit Through January 26, 2014
» Oldest Marathon Runner, Fauja Singh, is 101 Years Old

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