Being in shape may not protect your heart

Jason Lathrop was training for a solo backpacking trip in 2015 when he started to feel a creaking sensation in his knees during morning runs near his home in Portland, Oregon.

Expecting to learn that he’d torn his meniscus or strained a ligament, he went to his doctor, who told him his knees were just fine. Instead, he learned, he had a heart murmur. Six weeks later, the 43-year-old father of two was undergoing open-heart surgery to repair a faulty mitral valve.

After a lifetime of active and virtuous living that including frequent exercise, healthy eating and no smoking, Lathrop was stunned to learn that something could be wrong with his heart.

“Your heart is your aerobic engine along with your lungs, and I thought if there were any organs I would not have problems with, it would be those two because I took such good care of them,” says Lathrop, an analyst at Intel. “It was such a shock.”

Exercise does a lot to strengthen the heart and lengthen lives, experts say. But heart problems are still common – and sometimes dramatic – in active people. It’s a point that’s likely to come up during this fall’s marathon season, given the cases of sudden cardiac death and heart attacks that sometimes occur during long races.

Those rare but often highly publicized events offer an opportunity to deliver a nuanced message about heart health to active people: Exercise is good, but nothing is 100 percent protective, says Aaron Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Even doctors often overlook the potential for heart problems when they see athletic patients.

“No amount of exercise confers complete immunity to heart disease,” Baggish says. “You can’t outrun heart problems completely.”

Decades of research on tens of thousands of people have drawn a direct connection between routine exercise and heart health. Among other measures, studies show, getting…

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