The advantages of physical activity, including decreased risk of heart disease and improved emotional wellness, have long been touted by the medical community, but recent research suggests that those who run on a regular basis may get the biggest benefit of all: a longer life.
A recent review of existing data collected in large population studies, led by Iowa State University, found that runners have a 25 percent to 40 percent reduced risk of premature death, and live approximately three years longer than nonrunners. Other aerobic activities, such as cycling or walking, also reduced the risk of premature death, but to a lesser extent (by 12 percent).1
According to the research team, which controlled for smoking, drinking, and health problems, improvements in life expectancy reached a peak at roughly four hours of running per week. Other aerobic activities, such as cycling or walking, also reduced the risk of premature death, but to a lesser extent (by 12 percent).
“Running may be the most cost-effective lifestyle medicine from a public health perspective, more important than other lifestyle and health risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes,” the team concluded in the abstract, which was published in the medical journal “Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.”
They added that a growing body of scientific data suggests that running protects against both cardiovascular disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in most developed countries, including the United States.2 And, running has been shown to potentially protect against mortality resulting from neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, as well as respiratory infections.
A 2020 scientific review published in the National Library of Medicine found that “higher physical activity levels are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease development. Physical exercise seems to be effective in improving several neuropsychiatric symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease, notably cognitive function.”3
Marathons not required
So, just how frequently and how far do you need to run to potentially tap the fountain of youth? Research results vary, but perhaps less than you think.
A 2020 global research analysis found that people who said they ran any amount, even less than 50 minutes per week, were 27 percent less likely than nonrunners to have died for “any reason” during a follow-up study that tracked their health. They also had a 30 percent to 23 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and cancer, respectively.4 (Related: Lowering health costs through a personal record)
Prior studies found the optimal frequency of jogging was between two and three times a week, at a slow or average pace. Those runners tend to outlive their more sedentary peers, and they may even outlive runners who push themselves harder.5
“Light and moderate joggers have lower mortality than sedentary non-joggers, whereas strenuous joggers have a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group,” the research team wrote in their published conclusion. (Related: The financial cost of obesity)
That may suggest that runners who overdo it, or fail to train appropriately, may be putting too much stress on their bodies, a theory that doesn’t surprise Jason Karp, an exercise physiologist and owner of Run-Fit, a fitness-coaching firm in San Diego, California.
“The research clearly shows that you don’t need to run a marathon to get the health benefits of running,” he said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t take much. Just a few miles a day if you do it consistently for many years could potentially add more years to your life.”
While walking and other forms of moderate physical activity are better than being sedentary, said Karp, they can’t match the bang for the buck of a good run.
“Running has a great capacity to drive your heart rate up high, more so than other forms of exercise," he said. “That’s important because the heart is a muscle. If you want bigger biceps, you have to lift heavier things. If you want to make your heart a better pump, you have to occasionally push your heart to work harder.”
Karp, author of “The Inner Runner,” is quick to note, too, that running yields many other indirect benefits that might just trump the gift of time: physical wellness that helps to enhance quality of life.
Many runners, he said, become more focused on positive lifestyle choices. After all, it’s hard work to get in shape. They don’t want to undermine their progress. “People who run tend to drink less, they don’t smoke, and they eat less fast food.”
The Iowa State University research team similarly acknowledged that runners typically engage in other healthy behaviors that produce a longer life span, such as maintaining a normal body weight, not smoking, and consuming light-to-moderate amounts of alcohol.
Collectively, those choices contribute to cardiovascular health and better muscle tone, which helps runners remain active, stay social, and participate in the things that they enjoy.
“Many senior citizens have a very difficult time in their last years because they never exercised,” Karp said. “Even if it does not add years to your life, running can certainly add life to your years.”
Indeed, mental and social activity are critical to healthy aging.
A 2020 book by research scientist Marta Zaraska called “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100” reveals that seniors who focus on social relationships and staying connected often outlive their peers. In fact, the multiple studies she reviewed, which averaged seven years long, found that older adults with large social networks were 45 percent less likely to die during the course of the study than participants who described themselves as less social.6
In addition, many runners who train regularly — especially for marathons and other distance races — experience an emotional return on investment as they set and achieve goals, said Debora Warner, founder and executive director of the Mile High Run Club, a running-only fitness studio in New York City.
“I do think the benefits of running a marathon are largely mental,” said Warner, noting no one starts off running marathons. They progress one step at a time (pun intended).
“There’s a sense of accomplishment with running that doesn’t really compare to any other experience,” she said. (Related: How physical, mental, and financial wellness intersect)
As runners dig deep and push through pain, she said, they gain confidence in themselves. “With goal setting comes a sense of accomplishment,” said Warner. “There’s a feeling upon completion, especially of a marathon, that if you can do that, you can do anything. It helps to address mental barriers and those are lessons that can be extremely valuable and applicable to other facets of your life.”
And let's not forget the “runner’s high,” that feeling of euphoria that many distance runners say they experience after a prolonged period of exercise.
Karp said the brain is programmed to release endocannabinoids when you run, a chemical not unlike the active ingredient in marijuana, which helps to lighten your mood.
“People used to think it was endorphins that created the ‘runner’s high,’ but research shows that that’s not really the case,” he said.
As they gain self-confidence, lower their risk of health complications, and shrink the size of their waistline, runners get a mood lifter. Any one of those reasons are reason enough to run, said Karp.
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