We know how important it is to get in your daily exercise, whether it’s running, dancing or gardening. And over the past three decades, a host of scholarly studies have pointed to the positive impact of regular aerobic exercise, in particular running, in extending longevity and reducing the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. Much of that research was a follow up to the 2008 seminal study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine, which concluded that regular running can slow the effects of aging.

Can Running Really Slow the Effects of Aging?

The Stanford research, which began in 1984 and was published in 2008, monitored 500 older runners for more than two decades, concluding that runners 50 years of age and older experienced fewer disabilities, remained active longer, and were 50% less likely to die early deaths.

Among the Stanford study’s key findings are:

  • 20 years into the study, researchers found that only 15% of runners had died, compared to 34% of non-runners.
  • For runners, the onset of disability began 16 years later than for non-runners, and the gap in physical abilities between runners and non-runners increased over time, extending into the 9th decade of life.
  • As expected, running reduced cardiovascular disease and deaths related to this condition, but also resulted in fewer deaths from cancer, neurological disease, infections and other causes.
  • Among the more surprising findings, scientists discovered that running did not result in increased rates of osteoarthritis or other joint-related problems; runners, for example, did not need more total knee replacements than non-runners.

Follow Up Studies

In the past decade since the publication of the Stanford study, researchers from around the globe have continued to study the health and longevity effects of regular running. To better understand and interpret the findings of those several studies, a group of U.S. cardiologists, epidemiologists and exercise physiologists summarized their the studies’ conclusions, published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Researchers limited the studies included in their review to those which monitored least 500 runners and performed at least 5 years of follow up. Their findings, similar to those of the Stanford study, included:

  • Running as few as 6 miles a week (or 52 minutes) increased longevity by 3 to 6 years and reduced the risk of several chronic diseases.
  • Running improves blood pressure, reduces weight, improves glucose control, and reduces the risk of most cancers, respiratory disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and benign prostatic hypertrophy.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, running actually reduces incidence of osteoarthritis and the need for hip replacements.
  • Like the Stanford study, the Mayo review found that the health benefits experienced by runners compared to non-runners increase over time, including making the musculoskeletal system stronger.
  • Running more than 6 miles a week did not result in increased longevity benefits; running more than 20 miles a week actually erased some of the longevity benefits, something the researchers refer to as “cardiotoxicity”.

Is 6 The Magic Number?

Runners for years have argued that their sport contributes to life quality, including increased energy, a longer life and a reduced risk of disability and disease. Scholarly research has concluded that those arguments are essentially accurate. Perhaps the biggest take away is that the substantial health benefits associated with running can be achieved with a minimal investment of time and exercise—running as little as 2 miles 3 times a week increases life span by as much as 6 years and significantly reduces the risk of disability and disease.

Sources:

https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2008/08/running-slows-the-aging-clock-stanford-researchers-find.html

http://www.runnersworld.com/health/experts-surprisingly-little-running-extends-lifespan

http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(15)00621-7/abstract