Friday, July 14, 2017

How Healthy Are Elite Athletes?

Taken with my iPhone off my computer from
Compared to most people in the general population yes, elite athletes are very healthy if you read the article by Lemez et al (2015). However, this is a controversial topic that has been debated for years by athletes themselves, coaches and researchers.

I'm sure you've watched the riders at the Tour De France or the athletes competing at the Olympics. At these competitions, they usually rested and focused, look lean, powerful, slick and bursting with energy.

Can you guess how much it took for them to get there? All the grueling training and obsessive dedication required to reach those levels. Is at good for them? Will that pursuit of sustained excellence damage their health?

The answer depends on how you define health and who you compare elite athletes to.The findings from the comprehensive review on mortality and longevity in elite athletes is very clear. Elite athletes fare better than everyone else when it comes to longevity and disease if you define health as "the absence of disease and the capacity to enjoy life and withstand challenges."

That article by Lemaz et al (2015) examined more than 450, 000 athletes and found that elite athletes live four to eight years longer when compared to an equally matched control group in the general population.

Athletes who competed in running, cycling, soccer and swimming (sports with high aerobic demands) had the greatest benefits. Those athletes have lower rates of heart disease, stroke and smoke related cancers. The Tour de France cyclists for example have a 40 percent lower mortality rate than non athletes.

See how skinny he is (taken from
The other element of health is psychological, the question of enjoyment in life. That is difficult to quantify and answer.

Some studies show that elite athletes have better mental health after their retirement from elite sports. This may be due to the resilience they developed while competing or that exercise itself (trumps medication when treating depression).

However, other studies show comparable rates or even potentially increased risk for mental health issues. This is actually also dependent on the support the elite athletes received during their athletic career and early retirement (Rice et al, 2016).

Similar to an overworked doctor in the emergency department, corporate lawyer or investment banker, elite athletes often put into situations that require them to sacrifice a lot for their mind and body.

The best endurance athletes will push their bodies and their minds as far as humanly possible and this may not be good for them. If not controlled, that very same drive and determination that propels the elite athlete can eventually become harmful.


Lemez S, Baker J et al (2015). DO Elite Athletes Live Longer? A Systematic Review Of Mortality And Longevity In Elite Athletes. Sports Med Open. DOI: 10.1186/s40798-015-0024-x.

Rice SM, Purcell R et al (2016). The Mental Health Of Elite Athletes: A Narrative Systematic Review. Sports Med. 46(9): 1333-1353. DOI: 10.1007/s40279-016-0492-2.

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