A Praeg-matic view of exercise evangelism

March 28, 2013

Like any popular fitness magazine, Northwest Runner has an unabashedly pro-exercise flavor, and that’s OK. But in the April 2013 NWR, triathlon coach Wade Praeger goes too far in his scornful dismissal of past and present concerns about possibly negative aspects of exercise.

Praeger’s column is titled “The Real and Imagined Perils of Being an Endurance Athlete.” It begins:

Back when I started running in the 70s, I often had to deal with the questions, “Why are you running so much?” and “What do you think about out there?” Like many of you, I put up with or ignored those silly questions and just kept on truckin’.

In fact, “Why are you running so much?” and “What do you think about out there?” are perfectly reasonable questions. Sure, it can be tedious to answer them over and over and over, but true running ambassadors will respond willingly and patiently, thus demystifying the sport for their acquaintances and perhaps even gaining a few converts. To brush off such inquiries as silly does not help the cause.

Praeger continues:

…Every month I read another article about the perils of endurance athletics…. In a recent article in the journal Heart, Dr. James O’Keefe from Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City proposed that people who run too often or “too fast” have the same mortality as sedentary slobs…. Though his work has been thoroughly debunked and discredited by other cardiologists, the tenor of the article is repeated elsewhere in our popular culture.

These words suggest that O’Keefe is a lone quack whose only success has been in attracting publicity. Actually, he leads a team of research physicians who are publishing their work in respected peer-reviewed journals. Not everyone agrees with their findings, but the team is making a legitimate contribution to the field of exercise research, as Amby Burfoot has explained.

After further discussion, including examples of physicians’ genuinely nutty warnings from the 1890s, Praeger writes (under the heading of “Spreading misinformation”):

…I see at least three distinct causes for all of this hand-wringing and proscriptive do-goodery… Firstly … people who don’t work out need some justification for their non-participation… Secondly, there is the age-old Protestant distrust of having fun… Lastly, there is some semantic confusion between the meanings of “health” and “fitness”…

In listing these three poor reasons for worrying about exercise, Praeger implies that that there are no good reasons for doing so.

He concludes:

…When it comes to athletics and fitness, we all make choices and set priorities for ourselves. And anytime you try to impose your choices and priorities (your values) on someone else, you are being a prude, or a snob, or just a plain old pain in the ass.

I agree. The problem is that, by lumping together all exercise-related skepticism and rejecting it all as equally ludicrous, Praeger sounds as snobbish as those he’s criticizing. He should work harder to distinguish between imagined risks and sincere, reasonable questions.

[This was published as a letter in the May 2013 issue of Northwest Runner.]

One comment

  1. Too funny.

    I was reading that same article in a hospital waiting room and had similar thoughts to what you wrote here. Being as aspiring ultra running I used to ask many of these same questions myself! Now that I am getting into the sport more and more I am always happy to share my answers to others.

    I’m guessing this article was pretty much prime for he pump meaning it was supposed to provoke reactions and not much else.

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