Runners in ‘The Breakfast Club’ ran 100 or more marathons in the 1970s and beyond. Now in their 80s, they’re holding up well.
As a longtime marathoner, cardiologist, and cardiac rehab specialist, Ben Rosin, M.D., read the “too much exercise can kill you” papers very closely when they began appearing about five years ago. He prides himself on having an open and objective mind, and some of the papers presented interesting new information.
But Rosin was also struck by another set of data – this one from his own personal experience. He had a lot of old training partners in their 70s and 80s, and the majority of them seemed to be holding up well. At least that was his perception.
To see if he was right, Rosin, 76, decided to take the next step, and compile mortality data on his former training partners. The results of his me-and-my-friends research project were recently published in the journal The Physician and Sportsmedicine under the title “Is marathon running toxic: An observational study of cardiovascular disease prevalence and longevity in 54 male marathon runners.”
Result? Rosin discovered that his marathon friends were living, on average, 19 years longer than American men who reached age 40 in 1975, about the same time that his friends hit 40.
The arc of Rosin’s paper was established in 1969 when he and several running buddies started gathering for training runs on Sunday mornings in Palos Verdes, California. The group began with just five or six members running 10km. Afterward, they gathered for breakfast. Members soon began calling themselves ‘The Breakfast Club’.
The group grew over the next decade, as did the length of the runs. From the mid 70s to the mid 80s, anywhere from 35 to 50 runners would show up on any given Sunday morning, and runs often extended to 32 kilometres. This was especially true when local marathon dates grew closer. The best runners in the group ran from 2:30 to 2:40 in their frequent marathons. Others chased after a sub-3:00. “That was a really big goal back then,” said early member John Rudberg.
Rosin’s paper follows 54 of the most serious runners from the period. Many ran more than 100 marathons, along with a smattering of ultras. A few were college track stars who just kept going. Most began running in their 30s. That was true of Rosin himself, who ran 60 marathons with a best of 3:30.
The Breakfast Club runs are still going on, though quite dramatically changed from their heyday. The Sunday morning turnout might be 20 runners – half newcomers, half original members. The old timers are more likely to walk a few kilometres than to run, though there are a handful (now in their 80s) who are still running several times a week.
Since the mid 70s, 18 of the 54 original runners have died (at an average age of 81). Cancer was the biggest cause of death, claiming seven runners, at an average age of 77.2. Heart disease took five runners, at an average age of 86.
Among the 36 surviving Breakfast Club members, 17 per cent have some form of heart disease. Their average age is 76. The US national rate for heart disease among men in this age group is 34.6 per cent, according to Rosin. “My data revealed very low incidence of cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease [for Breakfast Club members], and a 19-year extended life duration,” he wrote.
This is far greater than the life extension found in many other studies of fitness and longevity. For example, a study of Tour de France riders gave them an eight-year advantage. Other research generally concludes that modest and high fitness are worth anything from three to eight years.
Rosin acknowledges that his study is far from a controlled trial. In particular, the Breakfast Club members enjoyed other characteristics (for instance, good education, good jobs, good insurance) known to contribute to health and longevity. By contrast, his ‘control group’ includes less privileged males in the general US population, as compiled by the Centre for Disease Control.
Still, Rosin’s results are impressive. “The long term observational data on 54 marathon runners reported here support the idea the some marathon runners have lower cardiovascular disease risk and greater longevity,” he observes. “For healthy individuals who self-select for marathon running, there’s no known reason why they cannot participate in high intensity, high endurance physical activity with significant potential benefits.”