Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Too Much Chess vs Too Much Exercise?

Last month the “too much exercise” story hit the media again. The general idea is that while moderate amounts of exercise reduce all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, those who really push it lose some of the protective effects of exercise and there is U or J shaped dose-response curve between exercise and health outcomes. This unproven idea suggests that mortality might actually start to rise for those who “exercise too much”.


The limitations of this story have been parsed and analyzed for the general public by people like Amby Burfoot, Alex Hutchinson, and Brad Stulberg. Additionally, a couple of years ago I did a piece on too much exercise that went over what the physiology does or does not say about this topic, and the short answer is that the physiology data tends to reject the whole idea. In other words people who exercise a lot into middle age and older tend to have big coronary arteries that can open wide and the pumping function of their hearts is excellent.


The recent papers and publicity also generated a long multi-faceted e-mail exchange with physician colleagues and writers interested in the topic. Some of the physicians are believers in the too much exercise hypothesis, others like me are skeptics.   In the middle of the exchange I came across a headline in the Guardian about two deaths at the World Chess Olympiad.  That led to an e-mail to the group titled “Too Much Chess” and several rounds of electronic trash talking.


Not being able to help myself, I looked on PubMed, the superb electronic search engine for medical research papers maintained by the National Institutes of Health, for articles on longevity and Chess.   I found one — from the late 1960s!  Unfortunately there is no easy to download summary or full paper, but the table below is interesting as is the conclusion of the paper extracted below.




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What to Make of the Data?

The first thing to note is that the table is a bunch of one off dates about various players. The second thing to note is that the total time frame of the cohort ranges from the 1700s up to the middle 1960s, a time that included all sorts of medical advances from ideas about basic sanitation, to vaccines and antibiotics. We also know nothing about what the cause of death was for the chess players or anything about other health behaviors like smoking or excessive drinking.   The summary then goes on with some convoluted language about the relationship between social and intellectual superiority vs. the drive for success and longevity. So, there is not a whole to the chess and longevity story but some interesting factoids and speculation from the 1960s.


Why Do A Whole Lot of Anything?

When I read stuff about too much of this or too much of that, I wonder if all challenging activities in life (chess, sports, music, and art to name a few) have to have some sort of return on investment calculation. If so are the only acceptable outcomes improved odds of a longer life or perhaps some sort of financial reward? What about doing something because it is challenging, or you enjoy it? What about striving for excellence for its own sake? What about pushing your own limits for the sake of pushing your own limits?   Also, who decides what is too much of what? At what level are we free to choose what we become, or will even more external norms be foisted on everyone?   These are questions with no right or wrong answer, but in a world where we get pushed and pulled in all sorts of ways with return on investment thinking, it might be worthwhile to come up with your own answers.


Not every human activity needs to be justified, medicalized or financialized, some just need to be done for the sake of doing them.


2 Responses to “Too Much Chess vs Too Much Exercise?”

  1. September 11th, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Karlheinz says:

    There is probably not enough data to draw any conclusions.

    “Important career outside chess” might be worth investigation, though.

    Professional chess players in those days did not earn anywhere near what they earn today, so being an outstanding chess player in those times most likely meant being (much) less endowed than their (weaker) peers with professional careers outside chess.

    And wealth of course was and still is an important issue regarding life expectancy.

  2. February 6th, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness - Sheila Kealey says:

    […] University of Michigan’s Justin Wolfers (New York Times), and here is exercise physiologist Micheal Joyner’s view on the “too much exercise” […]

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