Last Update: December 1, 2020
When a white-haired, hunched-over woman who could have been my great-grandmother passed me during mile 23 of the Chicago Marathon, I wasn’t mad. Veteran marathoners told me it would happen—I’d been “geezered,” and dang, I was impressed.
Most people associate lifelong runners with better-than-average health. After all, how many senior citizens can run a mile, let alone lap a healthy twenty-something mid-marathon? But for every study that says that training improves heart health and helps you live longer, there’s a counter-study arguing that you’re literally running towards death.
So what’s a runner (or someone who’s thinking about becoming one) to do? Here are the facts about what running does for your body—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
A study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology proves that regular running—regardless of speed or intensity—extends 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.
Aerobic exercise, in general, has been linked to better mood (thanks, happy-making endorphins!), and that annoying social media meme is actually pretty true: You’re never in a worse mood after a workout. But a recent study suggests that a regimen of 30 minutes of running and 30 minutes of meditation can combat the effects of clinical depression as much as some prescription drugs—after just eight weeks.
Doctors recommend regular high-impact activity to prevent osteoporosis. When researchers at the University of Bristol really looked at what constituted “high-impact” exercise, they found that running a mile in 10 minutes or faster applied the appropriate amount of stress to the skeleton and joints to improve bone density. And they found the younger subjects started with high-impact activity, the less likely they were to have bone damage in the future.
“Oh, you’re running? That’s nice, but it’s really terrible for your knees.” Runners are way too used to hearing this from well-meaning acquaintances. True, running with poor form can mess with your body (more on that in a sec), but if you’re doing it right it actually strengthens and supports the joint. Cartilage naturally begins to deteriorate around age 40, but the pounding that comes with running stimulates protein production in cartilage. The new proteins basically repair and strengthen knees—leaving them better than before.
Even though it can feel like your brain is jostling around in there, there’s plenty of evidence that running and physical exercise keep us mentally sharp as we age. Researchers have found that those who engage in physical activity twice a week in middle age have improved cognition and are less likely to develop dementia when they’re older.
One way that scientists determine aging is by looking at the telomeres inside cells. These are the caps at the ends of our chromosomes that get shorter and shorter as we age. Turns out that middle-aged long distance runners tend to have much longer telomeres than their sedentary contemporaries—basically indicating that their cells are biologically younger.
So running around five miles five to six days a week is totally fine for your heart—but training for concurrent endurance races in a row can have some negative effects on your body. During a training cycle, some athletes can average anywhere from 40 to 80 miles a week; this can cause excess inflammation in the body, and stress the heart too much because there isn’t enough time for the muscle to recover between training sessions. Even scarier: One study found men with coronary heart disease were seven times more likely to have a heart attack while running than sitting on the couch. If you’re out of shape and new to exercise, start slow—no need to run sprints on your first day out! Check in with your doctor before you start an exercise regimen, especially if you have underlying medical issues and are considering an intensive program.
Marathon runners have a higher risk of developing malignant melanoma because many of them don’t wear sunscreen. Over 50 percent of runners who exercised outside confessed to skipping the SPF—even when wearing shoulder- and leg-baring outfits. Just because you’re working out (not laying out) doesn’t mean you can forget about sun protection.
Patellofemoral pain syndrome, inflammation around the kneecap, has sidelined many a runner. Usually caused by incorrect movement patterns, the condition commonly comes with pain and a strange clicking noise as the knee bends. Working the tissue along the iliotibial band—the tendon the runs along the outside of your thigh—with a foam roller can certainly help, but the root issue might be poor form. If the discomfort persists, take some time off and when you’re ready to start again consider attending a workshop or one-on-one sessions with a coach—they’ll be able to help fix the problem and prevent future injury!
At the end of the day, if running or jogging makes you happy and encourages you to get moving you should do it. As long as you listen to your body, don’t overtrain, and always use sunscreen, it can only improve your health in the long run.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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