Running, Heart Disease, and the Ironic Death of Jim Fixx. (History and Philosophy)

By Plymire, Darcy C.; Bennett, Simon J. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Running, Heart Disease, and the Ironic Death of Jim Fixx. (History and Philosophy)


Plymire, Darcy C., Bennett, Simon J., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Jim Fixx was one of millions of Americans who started running in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Unlike other runners, however Fixx wrote a best-selling book about running and, ironically, died of a heart attack at the age of 52 years while running. Fixx and the authors of other running books believed heart disease resulted from overcivilization and recommended running as a cure. Running was not merely a physical exercise, according to those authors, but also a way of life. Moreover, those running authors, who were often doctors themselves, advised their readers to listen to their bodies, instead of their doctors. Fixx's adherence to that philosophy offers an explanation for his seemingly irrational behavior--running through chest pain and discomfort.

Key words: marathon, running boom

On July 21, 1984, best-selling author James F. Fixx collapsed and died of a heart attack while he was running (Gross, 1984). The irony of his death escaped no one. The 52-year-old Fixx had penned the single most successful running book of the era, The Complete Book of Running (1978). In the book he touted the health-giving benefits of running and claimed that regular running offered virtual immunity to heart disease. Fixx's book sold half a million hardback copies in the United States in less than 9 months reaching number one on the New York Times book list (Lehmann-Haupt, 1978; Pace, 1978) . (1)

Fixx, an overweight 35-year-old with a high-powered but stressful and sedentary job as a magazine editor, began running in the fall of 1968 after he had pulled a muscle playing tennis. He recalled, "my body had betrayed me, and I was angry" (1978, p. xvi). He began running, ostensibly to strengthen his legs, but the health of his heart was always on his mind. Fixx's father, Calvin Fixx, suffered a heart attack at the age of 35 years, and Fixx was determined to avoid that same fate. Moreover, he was determined to live his life to its fullest. The elder Fixx survived the heart attack, but, according to his son, "until he died eight years later he lived the life of an invalid.... He sat quietly, read, listened to music and...put his affairs in order" (p. 226). The image of his father as an invalid represented to the younger Fixx a life that was hardly better than death.

Running was Fixx's solution to the question of how to live a long and good life. Although noting that, "doctors are cautious about asserting that running guarantees a long life" (Fixx, 1978, p. 227), he also observed that the "proliferation of postcardiac exercise classes" was an indication that many doctors were convinced "regular physical activity is associated with...reduced morbidity and mortality from ischemic heart disease" (p. 230).

Fixx was equally convinced of the psychological benefits of running. To summarize his position, he cited Mark Hanson, a runner from New Jersey. "To run is to live. Everything else is just waiting" (Fixx, 1978, p. 15). Fixx also described his own psychological changes. "Something in running has a uniquely salutary effect on the mind," he said (1978, p. xix). He found he "was calmer and less anxious...could concentrate more easily and for longer periods...[was] more in control of [his] life...less easily rattled by unexpected frustrations" (p. xviii). These psychological changes gave Fixx a "sense of quiet power, and if at any time I felt this power slipping away I could instantly call it back by going out running" (p. xviii).

Puzzling information emerged following Fixx's death. 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). Apparently, Fixx preferred to heed the advice of another physician friend who told him:

Annual physicals are a waste of time. …

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