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Many of us know someone, or have heard of someone, who seemed to be in great shape but who died after hard exercise. Exercising too hard, however, is not a common cause of death.

There is a long list of famous athletes who seemed to have died as the result of exercising too hard. Some deaths are more widely known than others.

  • An individual more involved than almost anyone else in making running a popular sport, Jim Fixx, died seven years after the publication of his bestselling book, The Complete Art of Running. An autopsy revealed that he had severe coronary artery disease.
  • Ultramarathoner Micah True, hero of the popular book Born to Run, died on a run at the age of 58. His autopsy revealed that he had a severely enlarged heart, like that caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure.
  • The very first marathon runner, Pheidippides, died after shouting "Nike!" to announce the victory of the Athenian army, having run 26 miles to bring the news.

Sudden Death Can Also Strike Children and Teens

There are even more athletes of lesser fame who have died during their events. The deaths of high school students are especially tragic, and far more common. On March 4, 2011, Fennville High School in Ottawa County, Michigan, lost their star basketball player, 16-year-old Wes Leonard to sudden cardiac arrest. Just three days later Fennville High School in Fort Collins, Colorado lost their star basketball player, 16-year-old Wes Leonard to sudden cardiac arrest. That same week Florida high school soccer player Sarah Ladauer passed out on the field from cardiac arrest and died several days later. 

Every day about 10 teens and preteens die of cardiac arrest somewhere in the United States. Only about 150 of the 5000 young people who die suffer cardiac arrest while playing their sport, but sudden death is extremely common among kids who don't drink, don't smoke, don't have high cholesterol or diabetes, and who don't have high blood pressure. The number of adults who succumb to cardiac arrest during exercise is vastly more.

Why Do People Have Cardiac Arrests During Exercise?

There are a few people who suffer cardiac arrests when they become extremely dehydrated. That was the case with Texas high school football player Reggie Garet. When someone becomes dehydrated, their blood volume decreases, and there sometimes simply is not enough blood in circulation to carry all the oxygen the body needs. "Thick" blood tends to clot, and a clot cuts off circulation to the heart.

Most of the time younger or older athletes succumb to cardiac arrest during exercise, the problem is an undiagnosed cardiac arrhythmia. The most common potentially fatal arrhythmias are ventricular fibrillation (VF) or ventricular tachycardia (VT). The ventricles are the lower chambers of the heart, which push blood out from the heart either to the lungs, so it can pick up oxygen, or into the arteries so it can carry oxygen all over the body. Rhythm problems in the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, are less likely to cause sudden death, although irregular flow of blood can cause blood clots that can cause stroke.

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