High intensity training? Leave it to the young guys. . .
After a strenuous workout left Andrew Marr in hospital, fitness fanatics might think twice about extreme regimes, writes John Costello
Many red-faced middle-aged men swaddled in sweat-filled lycra while busting a gut to reveal their inner beach body are most likely missing from gyms throughout the country this week.
Research claiming that short, sharp workouts that only take a matter of minutes to complete but can deliver the same benefits as longer exercise sessions had many 50-somethings hanging up their slippers and making their way to the gym to finally beat their middle-age spread into submission.
But their body-hugging lycra shorts are probably still neatly folded in their drawers after they were left contemplating if being a slave to a fitness fad is such a healthy thing following BBC presenter Andrew Marr's revelation last week that one particularly over-enthusiastic session on a rowing machine nearly killed him.
"I had a major stroke. I'm frankly lucky to be alive," he said speaking to Sophie Raworth, the guest host of his BBC One show. "I did the terrible thing of believing what I read in the newspapers, because the newspapers were saying what we must all do is take very intensive exercise, in short bursts, and that's the way to health."
After jumping on a rowing machine at his local fitness centre and giving it everything he had, Marr began to experience a severe headache and flashes of light when he arrived home. The next morning he woke up lying on the bedroom floor unable to move.
'I'd torn the carotid artery, which takes blood into the brain, and had a stroke overnight -- which basically wipes out a bit of your brain," the 53 year old said.
His words of warning will no doubt resonate with those eager to squeeze in a high-intensity workout or frenzied game of five-a-side soccer into their hectic lifestyle in the hope of going from zero to hero in the fitness stakes.
Indeed, Marr was one of many captivated by 'high intensity training', which promises to help you gain a lot by doing very little.
Three 20-second bursts of near-delirium bouts of exercise just three times a week, or one three-minute workout every week is all that is apparently required. This is even though it takes most of us far longer than that to even get our gym gear on.
"For the average person, such a regime is too hard and too severe," says trainer to the stars, Karl Henry.
"It is great if you are young enough and fit enough to be able to benefit from it, but the problem is that on a yearly basis people get caught in the January Syndrome and look for the quickest and easiest solution to getting in shape for the summer. I have never seen such a solution work and I doubt if it exists."
Nevertheless, while personal trainers like Henry offer clients one-hour sessions to help them develop a long-term, holistic fitness regime that helps ensure weight loss and fitness, many others offer as little as 20 minute sessions to their clients.
But those who bust a gut when it comes to working out will be surprised to learn how easily they could suffer a stroke and end up in hospital for two months like Mr Marr.
"We would actually see about 10 to 15 such cases every year," says Dr Joe Harbison, Stroke Physician at St James's Hospital in Dublin. "And it is not only intense aerobic exercise that can cause it. I have also seen it happen to people after lifting weights in the gym."
Stroke is the third most common cause of death in Ireland and over-65s account for about two third of cases. But while the "furring up" of the arteries, high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol are the most common causes, a small percentage of those doing high intensity training can be at risk.
"The artery has three layers," says Dr Harbison. "If the inner layer tears, which appears to have happened in Andrew Marr's case, blood begins to pour through to the middle layer of the artery, which is made up of tissue not designed to prevent clotting as it is not meant to be in contact with blood. So this means it is very liable to cause problems."
While there is no exact understanding of the precise causes of such a tear, in Dr Harbison's experience those feeling under the weather are most at risk.
"People suffering from a bit of a viral infection may have a very minor inflammation of the arteries and this can make them more susceptible," he says. "So I think the advice would be that if you are not feeling good and think you are coming down with something, vigorous exercise might not be such a good idea."
And it doesn't even take intense exercise.
"I have come across cases where it was caused simply by someone sneezing," says Dr Harbison. "Unfortunately, we have seen people die from this type of stroke and have lost some people under the age of 40."
Luckily, the BBC presenter was fortunate and should over a period of time return to full fitness. But of the 30,000 stroke survivors in Ireland, many have been left with significant disabilities.
"I think he will eventually be fully recovered, and I would just put him on Aspirin for the rest of his life," says Dr Harbison.
"But I would recommend he never wears a tie again and forgets about ever doing a bungee jump or taking a rollercoaster ride. Like all advice it is best to do everything in moderation.
"If you are going to exercise it is important to get your heart rate up but whether it is a good idea to get it up to such an extent is another thing.
"Very vigorous exercise if probably fine if your arteries are ok and not inflamed, but it is better to be careful if you are not feeling 100pc."
And what can those looking for a quick fix for their fitness levels learn from Marr?
"There is such a massive market for quick-fix solutions that people don't look into the possible dangers because they are only concerned with losing weight and getting in shape as quickly as possible," says Henry.
"But if you haven't trained for a while or if your waistline is over 40 inches, firstly you need to visit your GP to get the all clear and then you need to build up your training slowly overtime.
"It may be a cliché, but Rome was not built in a day. And while fad solutions can have a short term affect, it takes hard work and a long time to maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle."
For more information on strokes visit www.stroke.ie.