What really killed fitness-God Jim Fixx?? (I just learned.)

Fix died at the top of the fitness craze, age 52.   At 35 he had been a weakling, ill, overweight, and suddenly made the decision to devote himself to running.  From there, he became a zealot, a pack of muscles, a best selling author, and a national symbol.

So on July 20, 1984, no one could believe it when he keeled over dead during his daily run.  Why?  Is it that the body just can’t take that much running, after all? Well, the evidence shows something much stranger in fact, and as we’ll see, it depends what kind of body we’re talking about.

Fitness Guru Jim Fixx "Jogged his way to death". by Barry ORegan

Fixx’s acolytes included a lot of doctors and many were eager to find Li’l Bo Peep reasons for his passing that did not threaten his and their new philosophy of fanatical fitness.  All kinds of excuses were offered as to how his death was supposedly unrelated:  He had smoked until 35, he had a predisposition in the family, he had been overweight till 35, he had a stressful job.

Most of this flies in the face of what Fixx had been preaching, of course.  Smoking?  Overweight?  Running was supposed to cure ill effects from those, didn’t his books say that?  Plus he had weighed 220, not 450.  And that predisposition – if he was at risk, presumably he was going to doctors regularly who could verify his health and all those nearly-impossible-to-believe cardiac results he was reporting. Right?  Oh, and his “stressful job?”  Now that’s the kicker! He was a fucking magazine editor!  In other words, he had a job!  Like you! Only he’s dead, and you’re not.

What really killed him is weird as hell:  he was sick as can be the whole time, knew it, and wouldn’t go to the doctor.  He had a hugely enlarged heart that sane physicians would have cited to halt his running craze before it started, had he not hidden it from them.   He had a serious cholesterol-related illness, atherosclerosis, and when he died, according to some reports, the buildup had blocked one coronary artery 95%, a second 85%, and a third 70%.  You don’t get that way overnight, as you know, and if diet isn’t controlling cholesterol, there are drugs that can address it.  But you’ve gotta see a physician and he would not. “Friends and family reported that Fixx had complained of “chest pains while running” (Schanberg, 1984, p. 23) and tightness in his chest (Cooper, 1985; Wallis, 1984).Yet he refused to have an exercise stress test, despite the urging of his former wife, Alice Cashman Fixx, and the invitation of Kenneth Cooper (Cooper, 1985; “Deadly Refusal,” 1984).”

The autopsy showed he had several small heart attacks in the weeks before finally succumbing.    Just gotta power through those, eh, Jim?

I’ll resist the impulse to call him a name.  But what a waste! He decided that being a magazine editor was sufficient qualification for him to heal himself and preach to millions. He made a lot of money peddling his dangerous, faddish neurosis as advice to foolhardy people who wanted to believe – doctors are bad, so just run cuz you and Jim know EVERYTHING and it’s all in his book!

And that suggests a couple of New Year’s resolutions for you, friends:  get yourself checked out if you can.  I had a reason to get a bunch of tests done recently and it helped me to know what is going on, although I know cost can be an issue in USA.  At least see the guy.  Maybe you need to make some lifestyle changes, depending on what the tests show or how the doc sees it.  As Fixx would have enthused, “Just do it.”  Only he didn’t, fearful of knowing the truth, and that’s the one thing he actually needed as opposed to the snake oil he was hawking.

And the other thing — if your body is trying to send you messages, don’t fricking ignore them! And exercise is almost always good, but what exactly you should be doing depends on your situation (you won’t read that in his cockamamie books!).  So here’s to your good health in 2011!  You’ve got the starring role in protecting that, and you don’t need some yo-yo bestseller to point you in the right direction! — O.T.

Advertisements

46 thoughts on “What really killed fitness-God Jim Fixx?? (I just learned.)

  1. Thanks for this timely post, OT. I’m not a big fan of running. I think most people would be better off walking briskly instead of jogging. The damage done to the knees, feet and ankles is not worth it, if you ask me.

    I’m happy to say that my medical benefits kick in sometime around February, and the first thing I’m gonna do is schedule an annual physical with my doctor. I didn’t get to have one this year, what with being out of work for so long. My doctor is very thorough and honest and, much as I hate the lectures she gives me, I’m pretty honest with her too. I’m glad your post addressed how vital it is to be truthful with your doctor. It’s so important.

    Here’s to a happy and healthy new year.

    1. “I’m happy to say that my medical benefits kick in sometime around February, and the first thing I’m gonna do is schedule an annual physical with my doctor.”

      Good thinking, Lis! I’m glad you are getting this chance and you are taking this wise approach!! Bravo!!

    2. smartersig

      Being truthful with your doctor is one thing but your doctor being truthful with you can often be less likely. The sad fact in my country is that doctors are merely drug pushers for pharmacy companies. If you want advice on how to deal with a current calamity or mask the symptoms of a pending one then listen to your doctor. If you want to deal with the root causes of your condition and possibly unravel them then your doctor is unlikely to provide the guidance you need. It is a fact that in my country doctors get one short module on nutrition, in fact one doctor almost excused his lack of knowledge on this subject by stating to me that he was a doctor not a nutritionist!. The irony of that statement was totally lost on him.

  2. ~flowerchild~

    You know, it just so happens I am scheduled for an EKG tomorrow to have my heart checked out. Hopefully, it will turn out to be nothing serious, but it has been a worry which adds stress to an uncertain situation. So, I echo your request to GET IT CHECKED OUT by a doctor if you suspect any health problems.

    Good Health to you, Dreamy!

    1. LOL! Thanks, Flower!

      Whatever the issue is with EKG, it’s going to be better if understood and if need be, attended to in whichever way.

      So it’s great you’re getting it done! Here’s to a happy, healthy, 2011 for ~flowerchild~!!! 🙂

    2. P.S. BTW, Flower, I was able to improve EKG recently by adjusting my blood pressure medicine, and diet and exercise are usually significant. Getting a not-great EKG is not necessarily a problem in itself — you can often make it better. What *is* a problem is when, like Jim Fixx, you are hiding from the truth so you can’t find solutions to your unknown problems. Best of luck with it, Flower! 🙂

  3. I began to run in February of 1980 I read everything I could get my hands on. And I read Fixx.

    By the time he died I had completed two marathons and had been jogging fifty or more miles every week for four years. I continued for another eleven years.

    never felt better.

    There are genetic limits and Fixx would have none of that!!

  4. There are a lot of assumptions in what you write here. The first is that even if Fixx’s atherosclerosis had been detected it could have been fixed. Safe, effective drugs to reduce cholesterol were not available in Fixx’s lifetime. And the jury is still out of statins anyway. The value of omega 3 in reducing existing plaques was not mainstream medicine until the 21st Century. Given his otherwise excellent state of health he would not have been a candidate for bypass surgery. So what, in practical fact, would medical consultation have brought him? In 1984, pretty much nothing. The tragedy of Fixx is that the improved CV efficiency running gave him, prevented him seeing the genetic risks he faced until it was too late. That same level of fitness would have masked his problems with doctors as well. And what would a doctor have suggested? Stop smoking, lose weight and exercise? Jim Fixx was already there.

    1. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that Fixx had conducted extensive consultations with physicians, had received the advice, and rejected in favor or his own daredevil zealotry.

      I’ll try to get back on this. Like you, I really am interested in the truth, so if I’m wrong on this, I want to know as badly as you do. And I don’t think I am wrong, but will look into it.

      1. ‘Daredevil zealotry’? The guy was running 10 miles a day typically. That is hardly excessive. The point is the medical advice of the day would have been IDENTICAL to what Fixx was already doing or had done. Lose weight. Don’t smoke. Moderate exercise. You seem to think that statins were around or that an ECG would have identified the problem. If his only symptoms were mild exertional angina, that would probably not have been the case. And angiography on an otherwise healthy guy in 1984? Wouldn’t have happened. Jim Fixx had a genetic predisposition to atherosclerosis and the only thing that would have helped him then, and now, would have been a diet rich in omega 3 (and possibly Vit C). And even now, doctors are suspicious about that, despite all the clinical evidence. Back in 84 that would have been seen as voodoo.

        I was a healthy 49 year old when I got my FIRST angina pains. Within 4 weeks I had had a double bypass. That’s 4 weeks from being perfectly healthy to being opened up like a crab shell. With stuff like this you don’t always get warnings and to assume a doctor or even a cardiologist would have been able to detect a problem, much less to prevent you dying, if you are essential asymptomatic, is wrong. To be badmouthing Jim Fixx because he didn’t take options that were never really there anyway is poor form.

  5. FWIW, I recall reading at the time that Fixx’s diet wasn’t entirely healthy. It was asserted that he felt his running would make up for the ice cream sundaes.

    1. smartersig

      This is true many runners feel that their exercise will provide insulation against the ravages of a say a diet high in simple carb’s. The fact is that it wont.

  6. Donal. If Fixx had followed the generally perceived dietary wisdom of the day, the old ‘food pyramid’, or even gone hard core with something like Pritikin, he would have overloaded on omega 6 and the effect on his arteries would have been to INCREASE both inflammation and plaques. Fixx was right about the general plasticity of the human diet if your weight was good and you regularly exercised. What he didn’t know, and what in fact no one knew at the time, was the importance of increasing omega 3 in the diet and reducing omega 6, which the current scientific evidence seems to indicate is the single most important factor in reducing those genetic risks.

    In short, the dietary recommendations of the day were more likely to have killed him than saved him. And the sad news is that old funky dietary advice is still out there.

    1. Well, he didn’t follow the wisdom of the day: http://larywallace.hubpages.com/hub/On-Jim-Fixx
      In the Complete Book, he shares an experience he’s had recently when he succumbed to temptation and indulged in “an enormous lunch: two hamburgers, French fries, a milk shake,” followed by a run that he knew in advance would be sluggish. “I was sure there would be no joy in it.” What followed was something of a revelation: “[I]t turned out to be one of the best runs I’ve ever had. I floated, my shoes barely kissing the earth. My feet were feathers, in swift and subtle communion with asphalt, sand and grass.”

      http://fanaticcook.blogspot.com/2011/01/jack-lalanne-vs-jim-fixx-diet-matters.html
      “Ultra-marathoner Stan Cottrell said he and Fixx appeared together at a conference,” [authors Murphey and Kuzma] write. “Just before Fixx went in to speak, he ‘stuffed himself with four donuts and said, “I didn’t have time for breakfast.”

  7. Donal. Again, you are making assumptions. Fixx clearly did not have a calorie overload at the time of his death, so we can discount ‘over eating’ as a factor. Which takes us to the distribution of sugars, fats and protein in his diet as well as micro nutrients. Without knowing the specifics of the meal you describe, it is not on the face of it unhealthy as an occasional meal. And Fixx’s weight tells us it cannot have been a regular meal. If for example the beef were grass rather than grain fed it would actually have a DESIRABLE distribution of fats, with a bias towards omega 3. Similarly with the milk shakes. Today a commercial milkshake is likely to have nasty things like soy protein and possibly hydrogenated fats. In 1984 it was highly likely it had nothing nastier than milk and sugar. French fries, well the potatoes have negligible omega 6. As to what oil they were fried in, some are good and some are bad; but the occasional meal isn’t going to be lethal.

    What a lot of people don’t understand is that when it comes to cholesterol, and this is at the heart of this topic, dietary cholesterol is relatively unimportant. Your own liver makes about 85% of all your cholesterol and it overproduces blood cholesterol in response to being overweight and unfit. that is, to your overall calorie burden, and Fixx was neither. Your body cannot make omega 3 and omega 6 which are needed to raise HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol. If however your intake of omega 6 is too high, and for almost everyone in the West that is the case because of our grain based diets, the usefulness of omega 3 will plummet. All of which means that the WORST part of that meal, for a person with atherosclerosis, was the burger bread buns.

    Fixx was right. If your exercise load burns off body fat or maintains healthy weight, your body will NOT deposit cholesterol in the blood regardless of how much total fat is in your diet.. What he didn’t know, and what no one knew in 1984, was that he needed high levels of omega 3 in his diet to prevent arterial inflammation and to remove previously deposited plaques.

    1. smartersig

      Exercise or not, the sugar load in his blood will still need shifting by rushes of insulin and this in turn will damage his arteries.

  8. Fixx was predisposed to heart problems, a heavy smoker with lots of stress in his life, bad diet, an enlarged heart, and running hard was not for him, doctors said so he knew it. Those are facts, not assumptions. And it doesn’t matter that you may think his running hard wasn’t actually hard running, or that you may have reconstructed algebraically his cholesterol/trans fat ratio or whatever The point is he sold millions of books on the false dream of ignoring medical advice, was very proud of it, spoke about it a lot — he was all about him knowing better. Millions deceived.

    Many receive no warning of heart problems — but many don’t need warning since they don’t do crazy things like Fixx. But he was lucky in a way — he did have warnings, and paying attention to them could have extended his life: several incidents of severe chest problems in his last weeks. They were worrying to him, and he knew it was a definite sign of trouble. So he made himself a three-part plan: lightly ignore the severe symptoms, don’t see any doctors, and think positive.

    This is personal issue for you, fine. But your recalculations of his likely arterial density and flow rate don’t give you the right to accuse on people who have done their research of making assumptions. That’s about *you* — you are the one making assumptions and its conspicuously bad form. And with your amateur medical analyses, you sound like Fixx.

    One lesson from Fixx’s life is clear: develop a relationship of trust with medical people you feel good about consulting, and stay on top of your health with their analytical input. Consult them before you start a program of running 10 miles a day (and after). Even if you think that’s a paltry workout. The point is, what do *they* think?

    1. I haven’t ‘recalculated’ anything. And Fixx wasn’t new to running, hadn’t just taken it up. He had been running for nearly 2 decades. Fixx didn’t do anything ‘wrong’, not that his lifestyle choices are for us to judge. What he did was exactly right given the medical knowledge then and now. And what changes he didn’t make, ie increasing omega 3 intake, could not have been known at the time. At 35 he quit smoking, took up running and lost weight. This is in fact what any good cardiologist will tell you to do now if you are in a risk category. Even if you aren’t for that matter.

      I don’t know how old you are but in the 70s and early 80s it was not uncommon to see doctors smoking in consulting rooms. People like Jim Fixx helped change that.

      As for what medical people think, you might want to write a piece on Tim Russert, who did everything right with regard to following medical advice. Like Fixx he didn’t know to reduce carbs and increase certain fats. Because doctors themselves didn’t know.

      I don’t know what you are trying to achieve with this anti exercise stuff but it has nothing to do with science or modern medical thinking. Seriously, what lifestyle choices do you think Fixx should have made but did not?

      1. “Fixx didn’t do anything ‘wrong’ ”

        This is the rainbow you are chasing. Everything else you have flows from his single conclusory misstatement.

        “what changes he didn’t make, ie increasing omega 3 intake, could not have been known”

        Yes, blah-blah. What was known was that he was at risk and in his books he openly mocked doctors and said he knew better. You can find 10,000 ways to say this is not true of your icon, but the pesky facts are there

        “I don’t know how old you are but in the 70s and early 80s it was not uncommon to see doctors smoking in consulting rooms. People like Jim Fixx helped change that.”

        Thank you for sharing.

        “I don’t know what you are trying to achieve with this anti exercise stuff”

        I vigorously exercise daily — what could this possibly have to do with me? Again, you and your pernicious assumptions and irrelevancies.

        “but it has nothing to do with science or modern medical thinking.”

        Irrelevant bloviation.

        “Seriously, what lifestyle choices do you think Fixx should have made but did not?”

        Ridiculous effort to change the subject. When Fixx’s chest started aching, he could have whispered out, “My God! What have I done?!” And gone to seek medical care which he was trying to shame, yes, with his daredevil zealotry.

    2. if it were 1984, then yes, but todays doctors and the entire health care section is all about money. The drug companies give kickbacks to doctors to prescribe them. No thanks, I’ll let the Lord decide when to take me.

      1. smartersig

        The problem with runners (and I am one) is that they think running insulated them against any bad dietary habits they have, well it doesny. Fix had a poor diet, like many runners in the 70’s onwards he subscribed to the high carb’ nonsense.

  9. Wow. It’s like you delight in your own ignorance. What part of ‘nothing any doctor could have done would have kept Fixx alive’ don’t you get?

    Fixx knew perfectly well what his prognosis was. And he knew he could do more to improve that than any doctor of his day. And the same is true for you today. Lose weight. Quit smoking. Exercise. Reduce consumption of omega 6. It won’t guarantee you won’t die next week, nothing will, but it will do more for your chances than a trip to the doctor.

    And Fixx wasn’t trying to shame anyone. Maybe you should actually read his books. What he was telling millions was that your lifestyle choices can improve your quality of life, health and fitness. That’s positive and empowering and puts responsibility for your wellbeing back where it belongs: with you.

    For those interested in the science behind omega 3 and why the recommended diets of the day would have hastened Fixx’s death, the following link is invaluable. http://www.ecmaj.ca/content/178/2/177.full

    1. It’s really twisted how you jump from your celebration of omega-3 to denouncing other people’s opinions unrelated to that but about Fixx, to embarrassing trash talk like, “What part of ‘nothing any doctor could have done would have kept Fixx alive’ don’t you get?”

      Have you considered that aggression isn’t everything in logic, in reasoning? Face it, you have no credentials in medicine. Like Fixx, you want to celebrate that as a sort of credential unto itself. Why don’t you relax, lead a reasonable life, and lose the accusatory melodrama?

  10. It seems that what killed Fixx was at least partially his belief that exercise was a magic bullet that could overcome other risk factors. Now we are being told that omega 3 is the real magic bullet. There is of course great benefit to both exercising and eating omega 3 rich foods but I don’t think either is a guarantor of health if you’re snarfing doughnuts.

  11. Too bad you never got to talk to Jim Fixx. I doubt you would be bad-mouthing him now. I did get to talk to Jim Fixx, after a Quaker Oats 10K in Griffith park in Los Angeles in the late 70’s. He was a wonderful guy and inspired millions. His book was, and is, transformational.

    1. “Bad mouthing” is such an orally negative notion, Rich!

      The rub to my 3-year-old post is at the end: “if your body is trying to send you messages, don’t fricking ignore them! And exercise is almost always good, but what exactly you should be doing depends on your situation…”

      I am delighted for you that you got to know the man and you derived inspiration. The other things I wrote about him were factual and carefully researched. Best, O.T.

  12. Pingback: Are fat people rampant in Chicago? - Page 7 - City-Data Forum

  13. Are you fat? Hey dunce, runners sometimes die, even of heart disease. It makes the headlines every time and makes foul little pud toadies like you feel good about your pathetic existence.

  14. A lot of this stuff about meat being bad for you is pure bunk. As some will say, it all depends on the genes. My grandma ate red meat, pork, eggs, bacon, french fries, hot sausage all her life and lived to be 98 . I’m 61 and have done the same thing. Doctors today aren’t the same kind as in 1984. Today it’s all about money and they get kickbacks from the drug companies for prescribing them. True I have a few bad habits that I need to change but no one is prescribing me anything. When the Lord is ready to take me, then so be it.

    1. smartersig

      Maybe she should have lived to 108 and 98 was a reduction. I also suspect that she was eating grass fed non factory farmed meat. If there is a Lord then I doubt he/she/it is concerned with your death date.

  15. Hi
    Will take some time to read all the responses here so hope I haven’t missed anything. I love running – even tho’ I’m quite slow – and James Fixx’s book on the subject was practically my “bible” when I was a teenager. My take on this subject is that – yes, he died of a heart attack whilst out running but he had a hereditary heart condition which may have killed him a lot sooner had he not chosen to keep fit. It’s a shame that people who don’t like exercise think it’s funny – or use the story as some sort of “proof” that exercise is harmful.

    1. smartersig

      I do not think its funny Emma but there is research evidence supporting the idea that prolonged aerobic exercise such as distance running is harmful. As a runner it takes a lot for me to say that.

      1. HI Smartersig, I wasn’t suggesting you found it funny, especially as you are a runner, so please don’t take any offence. I was just saying some people do – a band called The Fauves made a song called “I’m Jim Fixx and I’m dead now” taking the mick.

    2. He was likely a case of the damage already being done. Besides the hereditary part, he was a heavy smoker for many years. My father was the same and after 40 years of it he did successfully quit but the damage to his lungs was already done and he died 5 years later.

      1. smartersig

        I do not buy into this hereditary argument when applied to gradual arteriosclerosis. Yes you may have genes that make you more responsive to certain foods, habits or lack of certain nutrients which then promote HD but the term is used as though such a genetic disposition means inevitability. Fox may have been more prone say to small dense LDL particles via a high carb diet and as such his high carb diet promoted his heart disease. The bottom line is that despite his genetics if he had eaten a low carb low sugar diet he probably would have lived much longer. How can I be sure of this ?, well large populations have little or no HD but when they migrate to good old USA for a ‘better life’ they come down with these disease on mass within a generation. Genes are a doorway, you have to put the key in and open them. There are plenty of say Japanese with a disposition towards HD but they do not get it because of their lifestyle

        1. I’m not an expert so I respect what you say and you do have some valid points. In fact I do know a few that have so far beaten the hereditary odds of their family history so far but it’s still something for anyone to think about. One example of beating the odds is actor Tyrone Power’s family. His dad died at 62 but he had an alcoholism problem, then Tyrone died at 44 but his 3 children are now 62, 64 and 57. Another thing I don’t always believe is how bad meat is. My grandparents lived into their mid 90s, mom lived to 88 and I’m 62 and we ate red meat, bacon, bratwurst, sausage, eggs and never had heart trouble or cancer.

          1. smartersig

            I think the problem with meat is that the meat our grandparents were eating is somewhat different to confined feeding, drug treated cattle we are consuming. They were more likely to be eating grass fed free range meats. When you look at the Blue Zone populations a common theme amongst them is that they eat little red meat

  16. mminmd

    Thanks for the very interesting read. The passing of Jim Fixx had the impacts discussed above…and others. For some of us “work-a-day” athletes, this was evidence not to go too far, to maintain balance in your activities, and to pay better attention to your genetic and physical indicators. Also, I believe the fitness knowledge today is much better, more comprehensive than ever in part due to the “mystery” of his death. Still, I don’t expect medical or dietary knowledge to be perfect…we’ve got a long way to go baby.

    1. The videos of Fixx in 1979 after a jog shows he’s panting and breathing hard. Kind of reaffirms those who say (in different words) that by then the damage was done. He had a bad heart and it was only a matter of time which in his case was 5 years. 52 is awfully young to die.

  17. kelgerips

    25th February 2016 Time 23.32 Jim Fixx was over weight. smoker also.when he decided to become a runner and wrote books on running, I think it is easy for me to say about him. I hope he might had shallow breathing habit, which may cause stress and lead to heart diseases. He had low vagal tone. He was man of Sympathetic mode individual I suppose . I have to read his to books and write my review again. Thak you

  18. Wow. I don’t see what he stood to gain by not getting the chest pain checked out. Like, that’s ALWAYS something that should be checked by a doctor! Especially if you’re going to engage in strenuous activity. Sounds like he was addicted to running the way an anorexic is addicted to exercise, or a drug addict is hooked on drugs…

    Just further proof you can take a good thing way, way too far. Being active is great but it’s no substitute for professional medical care. Everything in moderation. Even running.

  19. Pingback: Czy bieganie maratonów jest zdrowe dla serca? Odpowiedź nie jest oczywista

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s