Can Jogging Kill You? In 1969, a Leading Medical Expert Thought So

In the late 1960s, a fad called "jogging" tore apart the medical community.

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A doctor checks an X-Ray in his office on April 7, 1952.

In the late 1960s, a new fitness "fad" swept across the nation at a steady, leisurely pace. And at least one leading physician did not like it.

[READ: In 1964, U.S. News Dismissed the Beatles as a 'Fad']

In the August 11, 1969 issue of U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Harry J. Johnson, chairman of the Medical Board, Life Extension Institute, sat down for a Q&A on the newest fitness trend known as "jogging." Despite the practice being endorsed by at least one area anchorman, Johnson thought it could be very dangerous for those who were out of shape, and he did not mince words in his dire warning on the negative health effects of jogging:

"One evening in a suburb of Washington, D.C., the police went from door to door asking residents if they had ever seen a man jogging in the neighborhood and, if so, where he lived. They had found him dead on the road."

Johnson advocated for those interested in pursuing this fitness regime to check with his or her doctor first and even compared the dangers of jogging to those of smoking cigarettes:

"[A]ll cigarette packages carry a notice that cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health. Obviously, this hasn't deterred many smokers. I suspect that most every new jogger just starts jogging. He figures that the precaution of a medical checkup applies to the other fellow, not to him."

Johnson was not the only doctor concerned with this fad. He reached out to others for comment, and one described the practice as "physiologically insane."

Think about that if you plan to spend part of your Memorial Day weekend out on a little jog.


This article originally ran in the August 11, 1969, issue of U.S. News & World Report.


Warning to Joggers From a Leading Physician

Interview With Dr. Harry J. Johnson, Chairman, Medical Board, Life Extension Institute

A heart attack can be your reward for jogging, a health expert cautions. In this exclusive interview, Dr. Harry Johnsonauthority on how to live longer—explains his concern about a rising fad. If you're in good shape, jogging may be fine. If you're average—watch out.

 Q. Dr. Johnson, a lot of people have taken up jogging. Is this fad good or bad?

A. For people who are already fit, and who stick with it, jogging can be beneficial. But for those who are out of condition and leading sedentary lives—and that includes most Americans—there may be serious consequences.

Q. Why?

A. If the joggers are lucky, they may develop nothing more severe than aches and pains, particularly in their legs and feet. But still others may suffer heart attacks and sudden death.

Q. Are you saying people have died from jogging?

A. Yes, signs are beginning to show up in various parts of the country. In Orange County, Calif., for instance, five deaths within a two-month period last summer were attributed to jogging.

One evening in a suburb of Washington, D.C., the police went from door to door asking residents if they had ever seen a man jogging in the neighborhood and, if so, where he lived. They had found him dead on the road.

In Orlando, Fla., this past winter, a 46-year-old doctor who had helped start a jogging program through the Heart Association had a fatal heart attack in a locker room just after a jogging session. More recently, in Cleveland, a middle-aged man was found dead in a cemetery where he regularly jogged every evening.

Q. But couldn't these be isolated instances?

A. Some may say they are. I do not think so. In my opinion, there are many more such cases that don't show up in any records. That is because medical statistics on causes of death lump "jogging deaths" under cardiac failure.

You can say much the same thing about deaths from shoveling snow. We know about them only when there is an especially heavy snowstorm which motivates the press to seek out these cases. In fact, every winter the newspapers carry stories from doctors and health authorities warning against snow shoveling for the otherwise sedentary person.

Now, it is curious to me that some of those who caution against snow shoveling tend to dismiss deaths from jogging as a small price to pay for the greater fitness of our total population. I'm for fitness, too, but not at the expense of human lives.

Q. Should a person get a doctor's O.K. before he embarks on a program of jogging?

A. Yes. For instance, all cigarette packages carry a notice that cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health. Obviously, this hasn't deterred many smokers. I suspect that most every new jogger just starts jogging. He figures that the precaution of a medical checkup applies to the other fellow, not to him.

Q. Suppose a man goes to his doctor and is pronounced in good health. Then is jogging all right?

A. I would have to ask this: Assuming this man is a typical middle-aged desk worker, can the doctor conscientiously predict that it will be safe for him to jog, and say with certainty that there will be no harmful consequences? This is asking a lot of any doctor.

Remember, the ordinary middle-aged man is much like the middle-aged car that's driven between home and railroad station, or between home and office. It performs this task well and reliably. But start to drive it at high speed on freeways from one coast to the other, and you risk a breakdown.

Q. Do most physicians share your views?

I have no way of knowing on any broad basis. But just recently, I wrote to 50 doctors in the New York area who are certified cardiac specialists.

This is what I said:

"The enthusiasm of sedentary middle-aged men for jogging concerns me. I believe that 50-year-old men should be cautioned against an exercise routine intended for the young rather than the young at heart.

"The enclosed clipping was called to my attention (reference to Orange County, Calif., jogging deaths). Even if an examination shows no abnormalities, can we assure an older man that jogging is safe for him?

"We believe that 20 minutes of brisk walking twice daily is safer and will do as much for 'fitness' as a mile jog three times a week.

"Maybe we're being overcautious. That is why I am sending the enclosed questionnaire to 50 colleagues in the metropolitan area. It requires no signature.

"I'd appreciate it if you would return the card to me indicating your thinking."

Then I enclosed the following questions:

1. Are you a jogger?

2. Do you believe jogging is safe and sensible for sedentary men over age 50?

3. Do you recommend jogging for your 50-year-old-plus patients?

4. Do you believe a mile of jogging, three times a week, is preferable to 20 minutes of brisk walking twice a day as a "fitness" program?

I got 31 replies. And only one doctor said "Yes" to questions 2 and 3 about whether middle-years jogging is safe and should be recommended. All of the other replies were "Noes." And some of the doctors sent along comments to reinforce their answers.

Q. What did they say, for example?

A. One said—he was referring to jogging: "I felt from the start that this was physiologically insane."

Another physician wrote:

"Because I feel very strongly about uncontrolled exercise for middle-aged men, I am sending you this note, rather than filling out the card which you are sending around.

1. Nobody, old or young, should undertake exercise without a complete physical examination.

2. 2. The three dangerous forms of exercise which have been recommended are shoveling snow, riding a bicycle, and more recently, jogging.

3. Exercise of any sort should be prescribed for the individual in the same way as medicine.

4. The best exercise for the sedentary, middle-aged or elderly individual is walking."

Still another doctor wrote:

"I was very interested in your comments regarding jogging. My feeling has been that exercise should be prescribed to middle-aged men in the same way that we prescribe medication. In view of the fact that at this point we are dealing with arteriosclerotic heart disease, I think we both agree about the danger involved in the week-end, middle-aged athlete. I agree that 20 minutes of walking is safer, but I think this, too, should be prescribed."

Who Can Jog Safely—

Q. Haven't some reputable doctors come out in favor of jogging?

A. That is right, and much of their enthusiasm stems from the report of a carefully supervised program of jogging that was reported on in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" a couple of years ago.

That program was conducted jointly by the department of medicine and department of athletics of the University of Oregon, the Heart Disease Control Program, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the Eugene Hospital and Clinic. It involved three 12-week programs under the supervision of a university track coach and a physician. In all, 363 men participated. Their ages ranged from 30-66, and most of them were in sedentary occupations.

Each man had a thorough physical, with emphasis on the heart and lungs, and this was repeated at the conclusion of the program. Six applicants, all of them over the age of 40, were advised not to take part because they had various cardiac symptoms.

Another 10 participants—all but seven of whom were over 40—had some abnormal findings of the heart, lungs or electrocardiogram made at rest, which merited consideration and, in some instances, special observation while they were participating in the program.

Q. What was the outcome of the study?

A. Of the 363 men who started out, 98 dropped out, and 265 completed the 12-week schedule. Follow-up questions showed that slightly more than half continued to jog after the program was finished—about 133 of the original 363.

Now, keep in mind that this was a program run under almost ideal conditions—a fine track, complete medical attention, expert athletic coaching and encouragement. Yet the beneficial results—and I will concede that those who stayed with it probably got some health benefits—ended up by being limited to only one third of the entire group.

Q. Were these joggers under continuous supervision?

A. Yes. If this kind of supervision were available to every jogger in the U.S., I would have no concern. But it's quite obvious that there is no way to make sure that people who want to jog can do so under such ideal circumstances and with so many built-in safety factors.

And that dramatizes the kind of spot that doctors are in when a patient wants to know, "Is it safe for me to jog?" The physician cannot predict with any certainty what the effect will be on the particular person, and the doctor can't jog along to find out.

Q. Are you saying that some people who think jogging is good for them are going into it without proper precautions?

A. Yes. My fear is that the jogging enthusiasts haven't paid enough attention to the warnings issued by responsible advocates of jogging. For instance, the recently organized National Jogging Association is championing jogging on a nationwide scale as "one of the most effective forms of healthful physical activity."

But, continuing beyond the first paragraph of their statement, one reads that they are seeing membership from those who are basically free from disability and disease, that medical approval must be obtained, and that the jogging will be done in graduated increments.

Q. Isn't it true that most people need some form of regular exercise?

A. I couldn't agree more, but it doesn't have to be jogging. They trouble with our way of life is that most Americans no longer have to exercise to get sustenance, and all our technological conveniences encourage us to be passive—to ride in cars and elevators. The result is that few of us get the exercise we need for the efficient operation of the human machine. This is the first time in the history of the world that this situation has existed.

Sure, I am for exercise, and the most vigorously the circulatory system is stimulated the better. But exercise can be had without neck pain, back pain, knee and foot pains and with no danger of stirring up a "slipped disc."

Dr. Harry Cooper, the Air Force specialist in conditioning, says that the four best exercises, in order of productivity, are running, swimming, cycling and walking. Most medical men would agree, if you are in shape.

Why Walking Is Better—

Q. What do you recommend?

I'm strongly in favor of walking for exercise. The old adage that you must walk before you can run tells the story. If you walk as briskly as you can, you speed up your pulse, strengthen your heart and lungs and legs. You can walk at any time—without special equipment, special clothing, in city or country, with practically no medical risk. And in urban areas, where more and more of us are living, you can walk without attracting undue attention to yourself.

I'm convinced that if the persuasive campaigns devoted to jogging were instead focused on motivating Americans to walk, we might accomplish more in promoted fitness.

Q. Do you think walking helps one to live longer?

A. No one can claim that it will. But it can make life more enjoyable, and is an excellent antidote for the emotional tenseness that grips so many people these days.

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