Sport //

Fighting the perils of fitness

Michael Coutts encourages you to stay on the couch

Fabrice Muamba's with his one-year-old son, Joshua. Photograph: David Howarth/Press Association
Fabrice Muamba with his one-year-old son. Photograph: David Howarth/Press Association

Anyone with a basic knowledge of health and wellbeing knows that regular physical activity is good for you. Society is obsessed with ‘being fit,’ and for professional athletes, the desire to have well developed cardiovascular functions is even stronger. Athletes are compelled to begin treating their bodies as a temple from an increasingly young age if they have any chance of making a living out of their passion.

For those who think there is nothing wrong with this, ask Piermario Morisini’s family what they think. Morisini would tell you himself, but he can’t – at the age of just 25, he passed away from a heart attack. Morisini was a professional footballer in Italy who collapsed on pitch just weeks ago, and was later pronounced dead in hospital. Nor is his tale an isolated incident: footballers Marc-Viven Foe and Miklos Feher have died from heart attacks while under the age of 30, and only last month Fabrice Muamba, a 23-year-old professional footballer in England, collapsed on pitch after suffering a cardiac arrest.

Actually stop and consider the magnitude of this. Professional sportspersons, people who dedicated their lives to attaining the peak physical condition possible, died from heart attacks. This bizarre fact belies an even more stunning reality – professional athletes are actually more prone to heart attacks than individuals who engage in regular, but not extensive, endurance based aerobic activity. This applies especially when those athletes have begun training from a young age.

Muamba on his return to Bolton Wanderers’ home ground, Reebok Stadium. Source: AP

The reason for this relates to the way their body develops. ‘Athlete’s Heart Syndrome’ (AHS) occurs when the human heart is enlarged, and the resting pulse lowered, due to exercise. It is a perfectly benign, and even desirable syndrome to have. Where AHS becomes problematic is when it develops into hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a disease that causes a portion of the heart to thicken so greatly that the heart malfunctions.

Armed with greater information about the nature and extent of HCM, countries have intensified their efforts to protect young athletes. The introduction of routine screening for all professional sportspersons in the Veneto region of Italy has reportedly reduced the incidence of HCM by 89 per cent. Whilst a positive step, regulations must not stop there. Greater restrictions on the numbers of hours children may dedicate to sports training are required, especially in sports with a heavy aerobic focus, such as cycling, football, swimming and athletics.

More so than anything else, young people must be made aware of the risks of pushing their bodies too far, too soon. Although the lifestyle of a professional athlete may seem worth the risk of HCM, a life is only valuable if you are able to enjoy it. Life may seem too short to worry about HCM, but it could be even shorter if you don’t.