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Jim Fixx, Running Guru

It appeared incredible that at age 52, running guru Jim Fixx had died of a heart attack after his daily run in Hardwick, Vermont (July 20, 1984). He was the guy who made running popular, healthful, and desirable. He sold more than a million copies of his book The Complete Book of Running, published in 1977. He was a close friend and a guest on my radio show. At the time of his death, the whole country believed that running was healthful because Jim Fixx had transformed himself from an ugly, obese smoker into an attractive svelte runner who appeared to be at the peak of health. On his many television shows and other public appearances, he would bring out his old pants with a waistband of more than 50 inches that could easily fit three men, and hold them up against his slim, muscular body.

"Marathoners Can't Get Heart Attacks"
The death of Jim Fixx scared the devil out of runners around the world. Many had taken up running because they wanted to gain as much health as Jim Fixx appeared to have gotten from running. Fixx often quoted California pathologist Tom Bassler who stated that any nonsmoker who could run a marathon in under four hours would never die from a heart attack. Jim Fixx ran his best marathon, a mediocre 3:15:54, in the 1974 Boston Marathon.

Bassler compared marathon runners to the heart-disease-free Masai warriors and Tarahumara indians. In 1968, Tom Bassler was the first journal editor of the American Medical Jogging Association. We communicated a lot because we both started our sons in running programs before they went to elementary school. His son finished a marathon at age four, and my son ran a 4:54 mile at age nine. Both kids quit running before high school, probably because they were tired of spending all their time running instead of playing.

Why Jim Fixx Died
Fixx started running in 1967 at age 35. At that time, he weighed 240 pounds and smoked two packs of cigarettes per day. Ten years later, at the time The Complete Book of Running was published, he had taken off more than 70 pounds and had given up smoking. He was famous because he used himself as an example of how healthy a person can be after changing to a healthful lifestyle.

Jim Fixx's autopsy showed that what was inside his body was much different from what appeared on the outside. The three main arteries leading to his heart were almost completely blocked with plaques and the autopsy showed that he had had at least three heart attacks weeks before the one that killed him. His other arteries were filled with plaques also.

Ken Cooper and Nathan Pritikin Explain All
Dr. Kenneth Cooper, exercise physiologist and aerobics pioneer, reviewed Fixx's medical records two years after his death and concluded that:
* Fixx had a horrible family history of heart disease; his father had a heart attack at age 35 and died of one at age 43
* Fixx had been a heavy smoker
* He was under terrible stress from a second divorce
* Even though he had lost 70 pounds, he did not have a healthful diet.

I had dinner with Jim Fixx several times when we spoke at running clinics together. He always ordered steak. After Fixx's death, Nathan Pritikin wrote a book, Diet for Runners, that included the following: "Jim Fixx phoned me and criticized me for writing: 'many runners on the average American diet have died and will continue to drop dead during or shortly after long-distance events or training sessions.' Jim thought the chapter was hysterical in tone and would frighten a lot of runners. I told him that was my intention. I hoped it would frighten them into changing their diets. I explained that I think it is better to be hysterical before someone dies than after. Too many men, I told Jim, had already died because they believed Dr. Bassler when he said that anyone who could run a marathon in under four hours and who was a nonsmoker had immunity from having a heart attack. Six months later, a passing motorcyclist discovered a man lying dead beside a road in northern Vermont. He was clad only in shorts and running shoes. The man was Jim Fixx."

How To Prevent Heart Attacks
The world learned from Jim Fixx's death that it takes more than just running marathons to prevent a heart attack. In addition to a vigorous exercise program, you should restrict red meat and fried foods, and avoid sugared drinks and sugar-added foods when you are not exercising, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. You should avoid being overweight, keep your blood levels of hydroxy-vitamin D above 75 nmol/L, and of course, avoid smoking, second hand smoke and excess alcohol.

How Risky is Running a Marathon?
The incidence of deaths over 23 years in the London Marathon is one out of sixty-seven thousand runners, or one death per two million miles run. In the New York City Marathon, three deaths occurred among 400,000 entries. Data from America's largest twenty 10 kilometer runs, ten 12 kilometer runs, twelve 15 kilometer runs and twenty half- marathon races showed 5 deaths from 1,636,720 race finishers. That's one out of three hundred twenty three thousand, or 0.0003 percent. These figures were gathered and published by a good friend of mine, Dr. Lou Maharam (Phys Sportsmed, April 2004;32(4):33-40).

Jim Fixx turned running from what was felt to be a waste of time to an enjoyable, social exercise that could save lives. When I used to run down the roads in the 1940s and 50s, people would stop me and ask me if I was boxer. That was ridiculous because I was 6 feet tall and weighed less than 120 pounds, but at that time, boxers were the only people who ran. Fixx changed all that. Today, more than 20 million North Americans compete in running events each year.

More on James Fuller "Jim" Fixx, April 23, 1932 - July 20, 1984

January 12th, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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