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Any amount of running may reduce the risk of early death, study suggests

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash
Encouraging more people to run would probably lead to “substantial improvements” in health and longevity, the researchers conclude.

Any amount of running — even as little as once a week — may reduce the risk of an early death, according to a study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers conducted a systemic review and meta-analysis of more than a dozen previously published studies on the topic of running and longevity. They found that running was associated with a 27 percent lower risk of dying prematurely from any cause.

Encouraging more people to run would probably lead to “substantial improvements” in health and longevity, the researchers conclude.

“Our study … suggests running can significantly improve your health and reduce the risk of death at a given point in time,” writes Zeljko Pedisic, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of public health at Victoria University in Australia, in an article for The Conversation.

“And you don’t have to run fast or far to reap the benefits,” he adds.

An important caveat

Before you go out and buy a pair of running shoes, however, you should know that the analysis relies on observational data, which means it can’t prove that running extends lives.

As a reviewer of the study for the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes, “[T]here was no link between how often people ran and their risk of early death. So, it could be that running was just a general marker for a healthier lifestyle overall. People who regularly go for a run or jog may also have a better diet, do not smoke, and moderate their alcohol consumption. It may be a full lifestyle pattern that is reducing mortality risk.”

Still (as the NHS reviewer also points out), the study’s findings align with current physical activity guidelines, which here in the United States call for adults to engage in a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity.

This new study is yet another a reminder of the importance being physical active.

Pooling data

For the study, Pedisic and his colleagues analyzed data from 14 studies involving 232,149 people living in United States, England, Scotland, Denmark and China. Most of the participants were aged 50 or older when the studies began, although a couple of the studies included individuals in their 40s. About 10 percent of the participants reported that they were runners.

The studies followed the participants from 5.5 to 35 years. During those follow-up periods, 25,951 (about 11 percent) of the participants died.

The researchers pooled the data from the studies and then looked to see how many of the runners versus how many of the non-runners were among those who had died. The data revealed that running was linked to a 27 percent reduced risk of dying from any cause. More specifically, the data showed a 30 percent reduced risk of dying from heart disease and a 23 percent lower risk of dying from cancer.

The benefits were similar for both men and women.

Doesn’t need to be daily

The researchers further crunched the data to see if the “dose” of running — the frequency, duration and pace of the participants’ runs — made any difference in longevity.

They found no indication that it did. Running only once a week for 50 minutes and at a pace of six miles per hour was associated with the same longevity benefits as running daily, longer and faster.

“This is good news for those who don’t have much time on their hands for exercise,” writes Pedisic. “But it shouldn’t discourage those who enjoy running longer and more often. We found even ‘hardcore’ running (for example, every day or four hours a week) is beneficial for health.”

“Nor do the benefits necessarily increase by running at high speeds,” he adds. “We found similar benefits for running at any speed between [five and eight miles per hour]. It might be that running at your own “most comfortable pace” is the best for your health.”

The risk/benefit balance

Running carries some health risks, of course, from overuse injuries to the rare risk of sudden death during exercise.

“Importantly, we found the overall benefit of running far outweighs the associated risks,” says Pedisic. “Shorter duration and lower pace of running will further reduce the risks.”

“Start slow and gradually increase the pace, duration and weekly frequency,” he advises. “Set your aim at 50 minutes a week or more, and run at a comfortable speed. Be persistent, but don’t let yourself run out of steam.”

And, of course, if you have any underlying health conditions, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any vigorous physical activity program.

FMI:  You can read the study in full on the British Journal of Sports Medicine’s website.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/12/2019 - 09:33 am.

    How about walking briskly? Not everyone can run.

  2. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/12/2019 - 08:57 pm.

    I am a regular runner/walker/jogger (depending on conditioning). For me the most important part of my exercise routine is raising my heart rate. I’m 71. When working really hard I can get my HR up to about 165. I can hold the high 140s and low 150s for a period of time. I generally don’t feel like I am getting much aerobic benefit if I don’t get my HR above 130 or so and try to push it when I am feeling too comfortable. Walking really hard I can get into the 120s and maybe 130s if I really work or go uphill. For me the main fitness goal is to improve my aerobic fitness. Aside from that it is helpful to lose weight going at least an hour a time and at least 4-5 days a week. I always work out with a heart rate monitor. It is the proof of how hard I am truly working.

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