The “dangers” of running and the availability heuristic

IMG_1232I really wish that writing this wasn’t necessary, yet on a regular basis I run into misinformed people who believe that distance running is the most dangerous thing a person can do after BASE jumping. Sometimes even family members plead with me to stop running, because they believe I am slowly killing myself. The fact that I am a vegan makes them even more concerned, but that is another issue that has already been covered.

Why do so many people assume running is dangerous? To a large extent it is due to media reports. Every now and then, someone drops dead during or after a marathon or a long run. This makes news; what doesn’t make big news are all the millions of marathon runners who cross the finish line without any serious issues.

It makes really big news if a prominent runner dies. Last year it was ultra-runner Micah True. A few decades ago it was Jim Fixx, who helped popularize marathon running and even wrote a book about running. True, who died at the age of 58, appears to have had a heart defect, and Jim Fixx, who died at 52 from a heart attack, appears to have had similar problems, besides having been a heavy smoker, and had serious weight problems before he took up marathon running.

Indeed, most deaths during marathons are due to pre-existing conditions like heart-defects and/or combined with improper training. Yet statistically, marathon running is not associated with an increased risk of death. On the contrary, according to the British Medical Journal:

Results The marathons provided results for 3 292 268 runners on 750 separate days encompassing about 14 million hours of exercise. There were 26 sudden cardiac deaths observed, equivalent to a rate of 0.8 per 100 000 participants (95% confidence interval 0.5 to 1.1). Because of road closure, an estimated 46 motor vehicle fatalities were prevented, equivalent to a relative risk reduction of 35% (95% confidence interval 17% to 49%). The net reduction in sudden death during marathons amounted to a ratio of about 1.8 crash deaths saved for each case of sudden cardiac death observed (95% confidence interval: 0.7 to 3.8). The net reduction in total deaths could not be explained by re-routing traffic to other regions or days and was consistent across different parts of the country, decades of the century, seasons of the year, days of the week, degree of competition, and course difficulty.

And this doesn’t even cover all the health benefits from regular exercise and the deaths prevented by it – being a couch potato is much more dangerous for your health than distance running.

But why do so many people continue to believe otherwise? In part I am sure that laziness plays a part in why sedentary people say ridiculous things about the “dangers” of running, but there is something else going on. I thought it would be more helpful to generalize why this is, even at the risk of getting overly technical, since I originally did not want to cover this topic again. By generalizing this, you can see that this anti-running bias is really one manifestation of a very prevalent cognitive bias called the availability heuristic. What is the availability heuristic? According to Wikipedia:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events by how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, “if you can think of it, it must be important.”

It’s the same phenomenon that leads people who ordinarily have no problem driving in automobiles to have a debilitating fear of flying in airplanes. Even though, statistically speaking, air travel is far safer than driving in a car. Those catastrophic plane crashes that happen every so often make big news, and are permanently etched into the minds of many people, leading to this bias. The thousands of planes that take off and land safely every day are not newsworthy.

It’s the same thing with running. To a very large degree it is a safe activity, though older runners should be a little more careful. Yes, many people may injure themselves while training or running the marathon, but deaths are extremely rare and usually due to pre-existing health conditions.

If you have or suspect you have a serious heart condition, marathon running may not be for you. If you don’t, you have little to worry about.

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6 responses to “The “dangers” of running and the availability heuristic

  1. plainjanemcgough

    I like to skip and gallop personally.

  2. Totally agreed! I run long distance too and I live it and ive never been more healthy.

  3. That’s great chbo, keep it up!

  4. Pingback: Marathon: A Runner at Heart | Boot Camp & Military Fitness Institute

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