* Scenes of bruised, beaten athletes raise health alarm
* Science suggests brain mechanism kicks in to prevent harm
* Experts say no-one can die from intensity of exercise
LONDON, Aug 9 (Reuters) - When a rower is helped from his
boat after a race robs him of the ability to walk, and a
triathlete is put on an intravenous drip after winning bronze
then collapsing, people wonder if being an Olympic athlete is
good for your health.
The London 2012 Games have seen bleeding, broken and bruised
athletes get back up and push themselves harder, faster and
further in pursuit of gold.
It is a time of extremes, but scientific evidence suggests
no-one will push beyond the limit.
"You'll never die because of intensity of exercise," said
Gregoire Millet, director of the Sport Science Institute at the
University of Lausanne in Switzerland. "You will never die
because you push yourself so hard."
Experts point to a body of scientific work that explores the
issues of exercising to exhaustion, or fatigue, among top-class
athletes. What it suggests is reassuring for anyone who is
worried these athletes are killing themselves.
Research, much of it led by Tim Noakes, a professor of
exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in
South Africa, suggests that however much some athletes may want
to push beyond all previous performances, a switch in the brain
- known as the "central governor" - will keep them safe.
"The brain uses the symptoms of fatigue as key regulators to
ensure that the exercise is completed before harm develops,"
Noakes wrote in a recent paper in the journal Frontiers In
In other words, it's not that muscles get too exhausted to
work any more, or that the body gets too hot to go on, but that
the brain stops an athlete activating the same amount of muscle,
thus forcing them to stop before it's "life over".
For Richard Budgett, chief medical officer at the London
2012 Games and the man charged above all else with protecting
athletes' health, having the "central governor" around is a good
Himself a former Olympic gold-medal winning rower - he won
in a coxed four alongside Steve Redgrave at the 1984 Los Angeles
Games - Budgett says seeing people compete until they collapse,
buckle or vomit, doesn't make him feel uncomfortable.
"In fact it fills me with enormous respect," he told Reuters
in an interview. "This is all about exploring human limits.
"Rowers in training, for example, they fall off rowing
machines and vomit and all the rest of it - but an hour later
they're back doing more training.
"And we have that central governor that stops us from
actually killing ourselves. People can't carry on through the
point of doing themselves real damage."
EVEN EXTREME EXERCISE IS HEALTHY
Budgett is also eager to point out that many myths about
potentially negative health effects of many years of hard
exercise are generally not borne out by the scientific evidence.
Studies in weightlifters, for example - who many might
suspect would suffer lower back pain and damage as they get
older - show that these athletes actually have less back pain in
later life than other people.
A scientific paper published in 1997 on the health status of
former elite athletes from Finland found those who focused on
aerobic sports in particular had long, healthy life expectancy
and low risk of heart disease and diabetes in later years.
While these athletes had a slightly higher than normal risk
of developing osteoarthritis - a condition marathon runner Paula
Radcliffe has struggled with in recent years - the research
concluded the benefits of a physically active lifestyle on
health were "clearly higher" than any adverse effects.
"Of course if you sit on a couch all day, you're not going
to get hurt," said Budgett. "And undoubtedly when people are
pushing themselves right to the limit, some of them will get
injuries or collapse.
"But that's the way we are made. As humans we do like to do
this. We see people going to the north pole, and climbing
Everest. It's not just at the Olympics.
"It's really interesting to see how hard people can push
themselves when they're at this kind of once-in-a-lifetime
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)