22 July 2021

Is high performance sport even healthy: What does the research tell us?


The extreme athletic feats that we see in the Olympic Games are truly impressive. However, based on current research, it is difficult to find an unequivocal answer to exactly how healthy high performance sport is, says UCPH sports medicine researcher.

In general, we can say that the big health effect comes when you go from not exercising to just exercising a little bit.

The Olympic Games in Tokyo give everyone watching them the opportunity to see the human body perform and athletes push their bodies to the limit. But is it actually healthy to push yourself that far or is high performance sport unhealthy?

Here you can read the answers from Michael Kjær, Professor of sports medicine at the University of Copenhagen and Bispebjerg Hospital:

How healthy is high performance sport?

“It’s difficult to say precisely, but high performance sport is not healthier than all sorts of other sports and exercise that people do in their spare time. When you train to run a marathon at the highest level, you don’t do it because you want to be healthy. You do it to see how well you and your body perform against the very best in the world.

But regular exercise is extremely healthy. And it’s very healthy to push yourself to get your heart rate up twice or thrice a week.”

Are there any aspects of high performance sport that are unhealthy?

“Yes, a Danish experiment by some of my research colleagues has shown that top athletes have a higher risk of developing bacterial infections than people with a normal exercise routine. This suggests that top athletes’ immune system is slightly weakened.

If we take a look at physical injuries, it does look as if high performance sport is unhealthy. But when we adjust the numbers for injuries sustained per hour, top athletes actually suffer slightly fewer injuries than people who exercise in their spare time.”

Is there any evidence that high performance sport is really healthy?

“Yes, a slightly older study showed that top athletes live two to three years longer than the normal average human being. And we know that people who exercise throughout their lives will enjoy more good years without illness.

In general, we can say that the big health effect comes when you go from not exercising to just exercising a little bit. But if you already exercise regularly, there is no evidence to support that becoming a top athlete will make you much healthier.”


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