The start/stop nature of pickup hockey may not be as risky to the hearts of middle-aged men as feared, a Toronto researcher says.

When Marshall Garnick, 62, had a heart attack two years ago, he had a stent put in, participated in cardiac rehab, took a stress test at the doctor's office and was cleared to lace up again. He also heard a warning.

"One of the cardio rehab people said hockey is a disaster because of the stopping and starting," Garnick recalled. "It's hard on the heart."

Jack Goodman

Jack Goodman studied the impact of hockey on the hearts of middle-aged men, and found it isn't as strenuous as previously thought. (CBC)

The conventional wisdom is that the stop-start nature of a hockey game is dangerous because the heart rate is high when you skate and blood pressure drops when you stop.

Garnick's linemate, Jack Goodman, studies cardiac risk. Recognizing a dearth of research on the impact of hockey on the hearts of middle-aged men, he recruited 24 players, including some teammates, to monitor their heart rates and blood pressure during pickup games.

"The key finding is that you get to very, very high levels, and the heart rate progresses throughout the game no matter what happens on the bench," said Goodman, a professor in the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology and physical education.

He estimates about 500,000 middle-aged men play regular pickup hockey. Despite anecdotal stories of people dropping dead on the ice, the number of cardiac events is few and probably less than among people shovelling snow, Goodman said.

"The cardiac events that take place during exercise are very rare and the benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks," Goodman said.

"Is it dangerous going to close to the maximal level for a sustained period of time? Not if you're healthy. And that's the rub, finding the disease that's hidden in the population has always been a challenge."

Since the players' heart rates, both skating and resting, were much higher than they would be during a doctor's stress test, experts like Goodman recommend warming up and having a good fitness base before hitting the ice.

With files from CBC's Kim Brunhuber