Exercise III: Athletes, the Picture of Health

I’m going to quote myself from a previous post on this topic:

We revere the athlete class because they embody the puritanical dream of denying the body to end up in some transcendent state of spiritual purity.

It is precisely why those with eating disorders are so very drawn to athletic pursuit—in particular ones that heavily emphasize the shape and leanness of the competitor—the anxiety is always modulated with avoidant behaviors (for a while) and so the eating disorder can easily adopt an athletic pursuit all for its own purpose and you will be in relapse before you've even completed your first mile of your first post-recovery jog.

In this post, let's delve into whether athletes live longer lives free from disease and illness or not. For every study that says they live longer lives and have less hospital stays, there is an equally well-designed study that suggests they live shorter lives with more incapacitation and chronic illness.

Steve Johnson: Flickr.com

Steve Johnson: Flickr.com

There are different kinds of athletes putting different stresses on their bodies. Head injuries feature prominently for both American football and soccer and pretty much all contact sports. Osteoarthritis, joint disintegration and inflammation feature prominently for distance and endurance sport. Use, twisting and torque injuries feature in sports such as tennis, skiing, snowboarding, basketball and volleyball.

The challenge with identifying whether life expectancy is quantifiably improved or hindered by athletic pursuits is that too many other factors impact the outcomes.

In fact, when it comes to longevity and lack-of-illness, health is not arrived at through exercise at all. There is a complex interplay of many facets that will provide most individuals with long and healthy lives (the happy and healthy super elderly vs. the sick and sad earlier-than-expected-to-the-grave younger elderly).

Community, strong friendships, stability, resilience, a big smattering of luck, some genetic input, most things within your locus of control throughout your life (which has a lot to do with socioeconomic status), purposeful activities (not exercise sessions), regular routines, an undying interest in learning and doing, and some kind of sense of purpose— these facets have been identified as common correlates for longevity through multiple studies of communities where disproportionate numbers of centenarians reside.

The athletes that are living a long time in good health are likely doing so not because they are or were athletes, but because the other 11 items that result in long and healthy lives were in place for them the whole time.

Generally speaking older women who workout and exercise do not fare well however they are often not apprising others, even their physicians, of their ailments. Older women who move around, attend to flexibility and group connection tend to fare better—less injuries and less digestive issues as well. 1,2,3

Cognitive Trade-Off

And vigorous exercise appears to have negative cognitive impacts as we age too.

The associations found in the present study suggest that while moderate activity may be protective, long-term strenuous activity before menopause may lower cognitive performance later in life. These results support further investigation of the effects of life-long exercise intensity on cognition in later life.” 4

If you would like to read an approachable article on the long-term cognitive impacts of strenuous activity, Mary Tierney is interviewed on the topic in this article.


Recent work by Evi Wollscheid-Lengelin, Time and Aging: Mechanisms and Meanings, 2005, takes a closer look at the immunological underpinnings of successfully and healthfully aging. The key to a healthy, largely illness and disease-free long life resides in some as yet undefined sweet spot of neuropsycho-immunoendocrinology.

There is no delineation between mind and body as far as our existence can be defined as being in good health or in poor health. The field of neuropsycho-immunoendocrinology attempts to recognize that immune and hormone systems do not function independently from your mental states. In fact, hormones are neurotransmitters and neurotransmitters are hormones—these substances are called neurotransmitters when they are acting in the brain and hormones when they act elsewhere in the body. Our entire immune system is dependent on those neurotransmitters/hormones and our immunological state as we age is a key marker for how healthy we stay and the age we achieve before death.

Did any of you notice that the definition of good health is being free of both physical and mental illness? And if you specifically have a neurobiological condition such as an eating disorder (sometimes referred to as a ‘mental illness’), then are you clear on whether attending to physical activity will improve or hinder your existing poor health?

Quoting myself yet again from a previous post on this topic:

The centenarians you meet are not pounding the pavement getting the miles in or standing in front of a mirror watching their form as they lift weights. Not because they couldn’t— many could— but because they are deeply connected to others and their lives revolve around those connections and involvements.

… I always encourage everyone in recovery to spend the time looking elsewhere rather than pining for the opportunity to exercise— what have you always wanted to try or do that you have not? Ever wanted to learn a new language or skill? Do you want to paint, write, design, craft? Do you want to investigate helping others?

My favourite image on this topic is an Okinawan woman who is holding her great-great-great-granddaughter on her lap (the girl is about 6 months old) and she is asked what it feels like to hold her great-great-great-granddaughter and she answered "It feels like touching heaven." (extract from Dan Buettner's talk on the topic of areas of the world where a disproportionate number of centenarians live). She was 100 at the time the photo was taken.

What else is there beyond "staying in shape"? An awful lot.

Not A Necessity

Of course sports can be enjoyable and rewarding, but there is nothing in your life that should be inherent to your self-definition because that is not a resilient approach to life.

Anything can be taken away from us and we still have to be “us” in the end. I see people assert over and over again on the Archived Forums these thoughts: “But I am the thin girl” or “Exercise is who I am, even before the eating disorder” or “I know that this behavior has nothing to do with the eating disorder” or “It’s a part of my relationship with my partner – we love getting out and doing things”

Exercise is not who any of us is, nor is it foundational in any partnership or life plan. Even for professional athletes and dancers, you are still not what you do. Nor are any of us just good at one thing. 

In the end, a deadly neurobiological condition such as an eating disorder takes precedence over clinging to defining your value in the world by what you do.

You have innate value because you are who you are. 

1. Skelton, Dawn A., and N. Beyer. "Exercise and injury prevention in older people." Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 13, no. 1 (2003): 77-85.

2. De Oliveira, Erick Prado, and Roberto Carlos Burini. "The impact of physical exercise on the gastrointestinal tract." Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care 12, no. 5 (2009): 533-538.

3  Cattan, Mima, Martin White, John Bond, and Alison Learmouth. "Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: a systematic review of health promotion interventions." Ageing and society 25, no. 01 (2005): 41-67.

4. Tierney, Mary C., Rahim Moineddin, Angela Morra, Judith Manson, and Jennifer Blake. "Intensity of recreational physical activity throughout life and later life cognitive functioning in women." Journal of Alzheimer's Disease 22, no. 4 (2010): 1331-1338.