- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Stressed About Stress Tests

A new study from Johns Hopkins uses treadmill stress tests to determine mortality rates, an approach that, to me at least, seems unnecessarily stress-inducing.

Sen. Reid after his resistance band altercation

Exercise can be dangerous, especially for older persons like myself. You might have heard about Sen. Harry Reid’s recent altercation with a resistance band, which broke several bones in his face along with a couple of ribs. I have some resistance bands at home, but I’ve resisted the temptation to use them, because I can just imaging one of them whacking me in some vulnerable body part when I least expect it.

But I reserve my real paranoia for the dreadmill, partly because it’s associated with two activities that have never made much sense to me — (1) running and (2) going nowhere — and partly because when I’m running to nowhere I can get distracted, and when I get distracted I can do things that I wouldn’t normally do, like forget I’m running to nowhere on a circulating rubber mat that will continue circulating even if I forget to keep running or happen to stumble or lean a bit outside the straight path to nowhere I’m supposed to be following.

Danger of Treadmills

This is no idle anxiety, by the way. I looked it up. Hundreds of people every year end up in the ER after tumbling off their dreadmill. Here’s one particularly ominous example I scraped up from NBC News:

Joy Fruehauf, a mom and yoga instructor who lives in Mill Creek, Wash., has been running on treadmills for 20 years without an incident, until one day, her Walkman (yes, Walkman) fell when she was running at a 9-minute-mile pace. “I remember trying to, like, swoop down and grab my Walkman, and I just lost my footing, and I was down,” says Freuhauf, who’s 40. She fell face-first into the heart rate monitor bar and immediately passed out.

“When I came to, I was laying on my back, and there were four or five gym members around me,” she recalls. She vaguely remembers feeling pressure around her nose and eyes, but what she really remembers feeling is total humiliation. “I was more embarrassed than anything else. I wasn’t even thinking about the pain.”

So I found it slightly intriguing that cardiologists at Johns Hopkins had developed a formula to determine mortality risks based solely on dreadmill stress tests. Thousands of people are subjected to these tests each year as a marker against heart conditions, but the Johns Hopkins docs believe they can be a valuable predictor of mortality for anyone curious enough about their long-term prospects to climb onto the dread machine and switch it on.

“The notion that being in good physical shape portends lower death risk is by no means new,” Haitham Ahmed, MD, told the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “but we wanted to quantify that risk precisely by age, gender and fitness level, and do so with an elegantly simple equation that requires no additional fancy testing beyond the standard stress test.”

What Ahmed and his colleagues found was that a 45-year-old woman who scored 100 or more points (out of 200) faced only a 2 percent chance of cashing in her chips during the next decade, which it turns out is not that much better than one scoring between 0 and 100 (3 percent). Where it gets dicey is when her score heads into negative territory: 0 to -100 equals an 11 percent chance of death; -100 or less and she’s looking at a 38 percent chance of imminent demise.

The whole purpose, of course, is not to stress you out about your number or the limited time you may have remaining on this mortal plane. It’s all about encouraging folks with bad numbers to ramp up their fitness regimen so they can avoid that early engagement with the Grim Reaper. As senior study author Michael Blaha, MD, put it, “We hope that illustrating risk that way could become a catalyst for patients to increase exercise and improve cardiovascular fitness.”

I’ve never taken a stress test, so I don’t know what my number is, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know if it means I need to spend any time at all on that rubber belt, which moves relentless forward, unconcerned whether I’m doing the same. I’m sure that Sen. Reid and Ms. Fruehauf would agree.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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