Benefits of Running

July 19, 2016

She crouched in the bushes, huddled under an oversized blue hoodie. Seamlessly, Bobbi Gibb joined the crowd of over 400 male runners, disguised by her baggy clothes and long men’s shorts. And she ran—fast.

It was 1966 when Gibb became the first woman ever to complete the Boston Marathon. And she did it in 3 hours and 21 minutes, beating out more than two-thirds of the men running alongside her. Women were banned from the iconic race until 1972, because it was believed that women are physiologically incapable of getting through the 26.2 miles. Gibb’s time proved everyone wrong, and then some.

Thankfully, the running world has come a long way since then. Not only has the sport boomed, boasting over 16 million participants in 2015, but 57 percent of those who run races are female. And no doubt, there are countless more casual runners and joggers out there who haven’t completed sanctioned races, boosting that number even higher.

If you’re already addicted to lacing up your sneaks for a quick three-miler, you probably understand the allure. For Tiffany Man, a newly minted marathoner who’s already training for her second race, it’s not just about the heart-healthy exercise: “The biggest benefits of running for me have been the intention, prioritization, and community that it necessitates. If I train for a race or want to make progress, I have to be deliberate about my schedule, so I can not only run, but enjoy my run.”

Non-runners, though, might be left scratching their heads. What’s there to “enjoy” about non-stop sweat, constantly being out of breath, and pounding the pavement? Despite the minor (sometimes major) discomfort, there are loads of benefits. Read on to learn more about why running is so popular, how to get started, and where it can take you.

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Benefits of running

One of the most basic reasons that running is one of the best sports around to try as a newbie? It’s easy to start. No expensive equipment required, just a pair of good shoes and supportive undergarments. And you don’t need a gym membership or a treadmill to get going—no matter where you live, there’s a whole lot of road right outside your door that’s just waiting for you. Finally, as humans, running is in our nature, so we already kind of know how to do it. Sure, it might feel a little uncomfortable at first, and your form might not be perfect, but it’s one of the safest forms of exercise that you can start without the help of a coach, teacher, or trainer.

So the barrier to entry is pretty low—that’s a plus in our book. But there are plenty of science-backed reasons to lace up those sneakers, too.

Extends lifespan

You might feel like you’re dying as you push through a hard run, but what doesn’t kill you does, in fact, make you stronger. According to one study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology, regular running—regardless of speed or intensity—could extend your lifespan. All types of runners, from the one-mile-and-done to the ultramarathoners, had a 30 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 45 percent lower risk of death from heart-related issues. On average, runners live three years longer than non-runners.

Burns more calories

If you’re exercising in an effort to lose weight, taking up running could help you burn more calories than those fancy machines at the gym. When researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee looked at the average calories burned on different types of cardio equipment, they found that people who ran on the treadmill burned 100 to 250 more per hour compared to those who spent the same time spent on the stair climber, rowing machine, or elliptical.

Strengthens your heart

All that hard work is great for your muscles—including your heart. Cardio exercise, like running or jogging, makes your ticker stronger by improving its response to stress. As the muscles in the body use oxygen, the heart has to pump harder to send new blood and oxygen to limbs.

Good news for beginners: The best way to get a strong heart is to do exercise that alternates between bouts of really hard work and moments of rest. This could be something like a walk-run workout, in which you alternate between jogging or running for a few minutes and then walking for a few minutes, or even a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout. In fact, a run that varies in pace is actually better for strengthening the heart than a longer, sustained-pace run.

Calms your mind

For some, exercise is less about getting fit and more about taking some personal time to decompress. Man notes that for her, longer runs are the best for stress relief. “When I’m aiming for a goal pace during a long run, I stay focused and it becomes very difficult to ruminate on problems or negative thoughts,” she says. “The relaxation and endorphin boost help me get unstuck.”

You can look forward to a solid amount of alone time to collect your thoughts as the miles pass, or pop in the earbuds to listen to some tunes. Frontiers in Psychology published a study in 2013 about the benefits of working out with music, and found that people that ran or did cardio to music were able to connect more deeply to their thoughts and better cope with anxiety.

Take your sweat sessions outdoors for even more mental health benefits. A study from Glasgow University found that people who exercise in parks, instead of indoors, reported a 50 percent improvement in their mood and well-being.

Fights depression

Exercise is often the thing that we turn to when we’re stressed, sad, or confused—like sweating it out somehow seems to make life a little bit more manageable. But there’s some biology behind the increase in positive vibes. Running stimulates the generation of new neurons and production of serotonin to fight depression the same way that many antidepressants do.

In studies completed on animals, researchers found that running can double the amount of neuron cells created, and combined with the influx of endorphins, it could explain why going on a long run seems to make everything better.

Get even more mood-boosting benefits by tacking on a 30-minute meditation to a 30-minute run.  A recent study suggests that the combo can combat the effects of clinical depression as effectively as some prescription drugs after just eight weeks.

Builds stronger bones

High-impact movements are known to help increase bone density and prevent osteoporosis. Researchers at the University of Bristol found that running a 10-minute mile or faster improved bone density by applying the appropriate amount of stress to the skeleton and joints—basically, running is one of the best ways to strengthen your bones.

Prevents cancer

In 2002, the Journal of Nutrition published a massive review of more than 170 studies of the relationship between exercise and cancer. The conclusion? Regular exercise reduce the risk of developing lung, breast, colon, prostate, and endometrial cancers—in some cases, by as much as 30 percent.


How to get started as a new runner

No doubt, there’s more than enough evidence that running is great for your body and mind. So, if you like the idea of finishing a marathon, want to amp up your workouts with sprints or short jogs, or just want to be prepared for anything (zombie attacks, “The Hunger Games,” and so on), it’s time to get out there and do it. Of course, if you have other health concerns, it’s always best to clear a new exercise regimen with your doctor. Once they give you the OK, you’re good to lace up and go. Get ready for your first runner’s high!

Step 1: Make sure you have the right gear

Most importantly, you’re going to need a good pair of running shoes. And don’t just buy a pair because they’re pretty—these shoes need to protect your feet and joints from impact and fit properly, not just look good. Head to a running-specific shoe store to get professionally fitted by an expert who can help you find a pair to fit your specific gait. It might take a little more time than ordering a pair online, but getting the right shoes the first time will save you time and money (and protect you from injury) in the long run.

In terms of clothes, you don’t need a full matching sweatsuit to consider yourself a runner. Actually, far from it! Just make sure your ensemble fits well to prevent chaffing (uncomfortable rubbing can result in skin irritation and make your run way less enjoyable), and stick to materials that are quick-drying. If you like to listen to music when you run, invest in a pair of exercise-specific earbuds or headphones that stay put even during running and jumping. Finally, if you’re running at night, it’s important to wear something with reflectivity to make sure that vehicles can see you. Some athletic shirts and shoes have built-in reflectors, but sports stores sell everything from armbands to full on vests that’ll do the trick.

Step 2: Warm up

Whether you walk, jog, run, or sprint, you’ll be putting some serious strain on your joints, tendons, and muscles. That’s a good thing, but it’s important to warm up all those little areas before you get going. Try a 5- to 10-minute yoga flow to get your blood pumping and to lubricate joints.

Step 3: Nail the proper form

Thanks to bulky tennis shoes with cushioned soles, many people run with their heels hitting the ground first. This is called a heel strike, and it puts a lot of stress on your body and can set you up for injuries.

Instead aim for what many experts believe that best way to prevent injuries and minimize the impact on joints—run with your body weight a little more forward, landing more on the balls of your feet. This is called a forefoot strike, because the front of the foot is the first thing that hits the ground. It’s also known as “barefoot running,” and has been studied by countless exercise scientists because some of the more gifted runners in the world are forefoot strikers.

It might take a little time to perfect the forefoot strike, but mastering the proper form will help you run faster and injury-free in the future. As you’re running, think about landing softly with your feet underneath you. Your shoulders and upper body should be relaxed, and every time you land it should be relatively quiet (no feet slapping against the pavement!). For more information and videos about forefoot striking, you can head to Harvard University’s research site.

Step 4: Get going

You don’t have to go far, or go fast. It might be a little uncomfortable at first, but your body knows how to do this—it’s a primal instinct. Start by walking, then pick it up to a light jog. There’s no need to go all-out for your very first run! Even marathon runners slowly build up their mileage over time. Start with a reasonable distance (a mile is always a good challenge) and commit to completing it.

The walk-run method is a great way to ease into running for longer periods of time. It’s really simple: Run for a short period of time, and then take a quick walk break. The walk-run intervals can be as long or short as you’d like, and as long as you keep moving, you’re good! As your body gets into better shape, cut the walking time and extend your running time.

Step 5: Enjoy it

Here’s the thing—if you’re hating every minute of the run, you’re definitely not getting those feel-good benefits. So do whatever you need to do to make it fun. Turn on your favorite music, listen to a funny podcast, grab a buddy to head out with you, or pick a beautiful path. The point is to have a good time and treat your body well.

If you can walk down the street, you can run. No matter how fast or slow you go, there are still some pretty incredible benefits that come with clocking in mileage. If you’re a regular runner, keep it up. And if you’re a prospective runner, this is the sign you’ve been waiting for to get out and go for a run.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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