As cases of the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus multiply across the world, health-care providers have urged us to take action to protect the most vulnerable populations from its effects. People over age 70 are at a significant risk. Right behind them, researchers have noted, are those suffering from hypertension and respiratory disorders. And when I heard that, I immediately thought of another class of people who could soon find themselves on the endangered list: pro bodybuilders, strongmen and powerlifters.
You see, the same people who labor in the gym to bring us the biggest muscles we’ve ever seen, whose feats of strength wow us on Game of Thrones or late-night reruns of the World’s Strongest Man, count among their number a disproportionately high percentage of individuals with breathing and blood pressure ailments — occupational hazards that go along with the business of carrying around 300-plus pounds of muscle and fat.
Before I go any further, it’s helpful to understand why the coronavirus has such pernicious effects on people with hypertension and respiratory disorders. The respiratory link was known from the beginning: transmission of the disease occurs from respiratory droplets emanating from coughs and sneezes from an infected person that occur within a range of 6 feet, and proceeds to cause damage to lungs — particularly because cells in the lungs are dense with ACE2, an enzyme to which the virus binds. The link to heart issues has been identified in research conducted in China based on studies of the recently infected population in the pandemic’s Wuhan epicenter. ACE2 in those cardiac cells can also present significant binding opportunities for the virus, which is more likely to cause acute cardiac injury in people already struggling with hypertension and heart disease.
And where, among the elite professional athletes, do we find some of the least heart-and-lung healthy competitors? Bodybuilding, powerlifting and strongman, of course (and sumo, which is out of my area of expertise but certainly an area of concern, given the impact of COVID-19 in sumo hotbeds Japan and South Korea).
Back when I was researching an article about the death of 26-year-old Dallas McCarver, a towering titan at 5-foot-11 and a seeming lock for bodybuilding’s richest prizes as his career advanced, fellow fitness journalist Anthony Roberts sent me the musclebound McCarver’s autopsy results. The breakdown was stark, with McCarver found to be suffering from “heavy lungs, a history of high cholesterol, a chronic cough with shortness of breath,” and the primary cause of death, an enlarged heart.
McCarver had done everything the right way, or so the narrative among his fellow gym habitués went, but even training and using steroids in a seemingly “sensible” manner left him with enlarged and malfunctioning organs. His passing was untimely, but not unusual when one examines the “dead pool” of bodybuilders who predeceased him. He had suffered some fainting spells during some public appearances before his death — and certainly would’ve been at a heightened risk for COVID-19 as surely as any senior citizen in a care facility.
Later, when I worked with long-time bodybuilder and powerlifter Stan Efferding on another story about the dietary habits of the world’s strongest men, I found myself shocked by the dangers these athletes face. I could recall their heavy breathing and excessive perspiration when I’d interview them at fitness events — they huffed and puffed like oxen plowing a field and likely boasted blood pressure readings high enough to inflate a tire — but I’d never connected the dots between their seeming lack of fitness and the health risks this presented.
Efferding, however, made the case pretty succinctly: Nearly all of these well-trained men ought to be going to bed wearing CPAP masks, given the respiratory struggles they face when they lay those thick necks down to rest, and few of them are well-conditioned enough to trudge more than five minutes in a straight line or up a single flight of stairs. It’s not that they aren’t supremely skilled athletes; it’s just that their skills, which can necessitate carrying 400 pounds of body weight in the case of genuine giants like Brian Shaw and Hafþór “The Mountain” Björnsson, don’t transfer well to more basic life tasks.
During a subsequent interview with Rob Kearney, a considerably smaller power athlete at 280 pounds but a rising star in the strongman world nevertheless, Kearney noted that his comparatively lighter weight enabled him to speed through certain events. However, even he emphasized that he’d have to pack on some mass as he continued his long-term pursuit of a World’s Strongest Man title. This is no sport for the svelte, and trade-offs, particularly of “six-pack” abdominals, come with the territory.
Such health sacrifices could soon extend far beyond those made by Shaw and Kearney. Weight gain and CPAP masks are one thing, but a COVID-19 outbreak at a crowded indoor strongman or bodybuilding event could have major repercussions. The same goes, one would have to assume, for other events in sports such as sumo and pro football, where so many competitors are classified as morbidly obese by medical standards and considered unhealthy by a variety of other metrics, (e.g., blood pressure and oxygen capacity of the lungs). (That’s not exactly why Arnold Schwarzenegger cancelled the giant Arnold Classic fitness convention in Ohio a few weeks ago, but it was due to coronavirus more generally, and the effects of all those people gathering in one place.)
Calling off major events, including sporting events, seems inevitable given the rate at which this pandemic is spreading. All of Italy is now under a quarantine, and national sports events have been discontinued through April 3rd. The Olympics, the NCAA basketball and wrestling tournaments and the Major League Baseball season are all in jeopardy of cancellation, postponement or other adjustments such as closing the events to crowds.
But the strength and muscle sports, where the biggest folks put their bodies on the line for the delight of fans worldwide, may need to take even further precautions. Because in the case of COVID-19, they might be no stronger than the elderly.