When you become a runner, it changes your life. But you may not know how much it improves every aspect. Here’s the evidence:
1. Running adds years to your life and life to your years.
Numerous studies have shown that running increases lifespan. This has led to the oft-repeated observation: “If exercise were a pill, it would be the most popular pill in the world.” Worth noting: It would also be the least expensive, with little to no cost.
A 2018 meta-analysis of research on running and longevity found that runners have about a 25 to 30 percent lower rate of all-cause mortality on follow-up than non runners. It concluded: “Any amount of running, even once a week, is better than no running.”
Another runner-specific paper showed that runners gain about three years of extra life. Why? Some of the biological pathways include: greater cardiovascular fitness, better body composition (less fat), lower cholesterol, excellent glucose and insulin control, stronger bones, better hormone regulation, and positive neurological functioning.
Few of us, however, simply want to live longer. Rather, we hope for a long, productive, healthy, active life. That’s where running and high-fitness shine. Since “seniors” consume a high percent of the public-health budget with their late-life illnesses, much research is targeted at what can be done to keep them healthy. Exercise nearly always wins this race.
For example, recent research at Ball State University found that a group of 75-year-old lifetime runners and bicyclists (who had been exercising for 50 years) had biological profiles closer to 25-year-old graduate students than to their non-exercising 75-year-old peers.
In another famous study, Stanford researchers compared local runners in their mid-50s with non-exercising Stanford community members who had the same top-notch medical care. Twenty-one years later, the death rate was more than 50 percent lower among the runners. More unexpectedly, the runners were reaching certain “disability scores” 11 to 16 years later than the non-runners. In other words, they were staying younger for longer. And the older the subjects became, the greater the advantages seen among runners.
2. Running helps you sleep better.
If you haven’t seen numerous articles on the importance of sleep in recent years, you’ve been, well, asleep under a rock somewhere. And sleep may be especially important for athletes. After all, it’s when the body performs all its repair work. In Good to Go, her book on sports recovery, science writer Christie Aschwanden rates sleep as one of the few recovery “techniques” that’s actually supported by good evidence.
According to experts from Johns Hopkins, “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” An article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Exercise notes that the exercise-sleep connection goes both ways. The more you exercise, the more you need quality sleep. Also, the worse your sleep habits, the less likely you are to exercise regularly.
Runners were once warned that an evening workout would disrupt that night’s sleep. However, a 2018 meta analysis of 23 studies on the topic produced an opposite finding. Except for a hard interval workout undertaken within an hour of bedtime (don’t do it!), other evening exercise actually improved ease of falling-asleep and quality of sleep.
3. Running can improve your knees and back.
This is one running benefit that many find difficult to believe. They reason that running is an impact sport, which must be bad on the joints. What’s more, everyone knows a few runners who developed knee pain, and had to switch to bicycling. True enough, but it’s also true that sedentary, out-of-shape adults have worse knee and back problems, on average, than most runners.
Looking for proof? Okay, fair enough. Here’s a study that compared 675 marathon runners with non-active controls, and concluded: “In our cohort, the arthritis rate of active marathoners was below that of the general U.S. population.” Even ultramarathoners seem to fare just fine. When researchers looked at the knees of runners who had just completed a multiday, 2700-mile run across Europe, they found that “The extreme running burden seems not to have a relevant negative influence on the femoropatellar joint [knee joint] tissues.”
In a study of 44 first-time marathon runners (17 men and 27 women), researchers noted that post-marathon: “The knees of novice runners achieved sustained improvement, for at least 6 months post-marathon, in the condition of their bone marrow and articular cartilage.” Same goes for the lower back. In a 2020 report titled “Long-term running in middle-aged men and intervertebral disc health, a cross-sectional pilot study,” investigators looked at disc spacing in veteran runners vs. non-runners. The finding: “Middle-aged long-term endurance runners exhibit less age-related decline in their lumbar IVDs [intervertebral disc height].” And the more years subjects had been running, the better their disc-spacing looked. Likewise for weekly mileage. More running was better.
4. Running helps you lose weight, and keep it off.
Because it involves continuously moving your entire body weight, running burns more calories than most other activities. And you don’t have to run fast to achieve max burn. You get almost as much from running slow (but it takes twice as long).
It has been said that you “can’t outrun a bad diet,” but that’s a half-truth at best, as pointed out by a 2019 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The authors note: “It is incontrovertible that exercise can and does result in weight loss.” Moreover, it leads to a “multitude of other positive effects on health.” If you want to keep track, running burns roughly 100 calories per mile. (For more accuracy, multiply .75 x your body weight in pounds to get your personal calorie burn per mile.)
Losing weight isn’t difficult; it’s keeping the weight off that’s incredibly hard. Study after study has shown that individuals can lose significant amounts of weight for about six months. After that, unfortunately, the weight creeps back. Usually, it has all returned, and sometimes even more, after another six to 18 months. Everyone has heard of “yo-yo dieting; this is it.
Only one group is known to beat the odds, and that is individuals who commit to a consistent, long-term exercise regimen. One program—the National Weight Control Registry—has kept track of these successful weight-losers. The NWCR is following a large group of people who have lost an average of 66 pounds, and kept the weight off for 5.5 years. Ninety percent of them exercise an average of an hour a day. Ninety-eight percent have modified their diet in some way.
In a 2018 paper titled “The Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Weight Loss and Maintenance,” the authors found that individuals exercising 200 to 300 minutes per week achieve better weight maintenance than those doing less than 150 minutes a week. It takes work and consistency, but the effort is worthwhile, as lower body weight appears to “profoundly enhance” health-related quality of life.
5. Running improves your immunity.
Exercise scientist and 58-time marathoner David Nieman has spent the last 40 years looking at the links between exercise and immunity. He’s uncovered mostly very good news and a few cautionary notes, while also looking at the effects of diet on the immunity status of runners. His summary: Modest exercise improves immunity, ultra-endurance efforts can decrease immunity (at least until you have fully recovered), and dark red/blue/black berries help your body stay strong and healthy.
In a 2019 paper, Nieman and Laurel M. Wentz summarized “The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system.” Among advice on intensity levels and diet, they report evidence that running can improve the body’s surveillance against disease, lower inflammation, enhance gut microbiota composition, reduce risk of upper respiratory infections and influenza, and improve antibody response.
Nieman proposes a J-curve illustrating the finding that regular exercise is good, but extreme exercise can temporarily lower your immunity. Many other health investigators have confirmed this pattern. In the textbook Muscle and Exercise Physiology, the authors state: “It is generally accepted that moderate amounts of exercise improve immune system functions and hence reduce the risk of infection.”
6. Running improves cognitive function, and reduces cognitive decline and Alzheimers.
This is the newest and most unexpected area of health benefits produced by running, but it makes complete sense. Running raises heart rate and blood flow. That includes oxygen-rich blood being pushed to the brain. It’s hard to imagine this wouldn’t be a very good thing.
It’s possible, as one meta-analysis revealed, that running improves brain health by stimulating the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein encourages the growth and survival of neurons in the brain. Another study showed that high fitness improves total brain volume, including gray matter. Even if you don’t begin running until mid-life or later, you gain protection from the kinds of brain plaques linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimers.
7. Running reduces risk of many cancers.
In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a remarkable “Original Investigation” into the exercise habits and cancer incidence of 1.44 million American and European adults. The authors concluded that high-fitness exercisers, such as runners, had a lower risk for developing 26 different kinds of cancer than low- and non-exercisers. The benefits could not be traced to either non-smoking or low-body-weight–two known cancer-protectors. There was something special about exercise that lowered cancer risk.
Many other researchers have found similar results. In addition, running is also helpful if you unfortunately do develop cancer. In that case, regular exercise lowers side effects from the difficult treatments while supporting you physically and emotionally. It also reduces mortality from the cancer, and decreases the likelihood that you develop another type of cancer.
8. Running improves mental health, and reduces depression.
Many runners take up the sport to improve their physical fitness. After a short time, these new runners often give a different answer to the “Why do you run?” question. That answer: “Because it makes me feel better.” They’re talking about emotions, mood, mental energy, fewer blue days, and the like.
The evidence for this effect is overwhelming. A 2016 meta-analysis of exercise and depression reached these conclusions, among other positive outcomes: 1) Exercise is “an effective treatment” for depression; 2) Exercise is as effective as psychotherapy and prescription meds; and 3) Exercise “may serve as an alternative” to costly and often-hard-to-find/schedule medical treatments.
A chapter in the 2019 handbook Sport and Exercise Psychology from the American Psychological Association states: “There is substantial evidence supporting exercise use in the treatment of mental disorders, especially depression.” As positive as this evidence appears, it does not mean you should rely solely on running and other fitness exercises when battling depression. Depression is a serious, widespread disease, and should be confronted with a full array of medical approaches.
9. Running improves glucose regulation, and lowers risk of diabetes and pre-diabetes.
High blood glucose levels, often leading to diabetes, are a major “side effect” of the obesity-overweight epidemic in the Western world. They also threaten to shorten healthy lifespans, and to overwhelm the public-health system (so many individuals; very high cost).
Running and other vigorous exercise can substantially improve this grim outlook. According to the American Diabetes Association, exercise can: 1) Prevent or reduce Type 2 diabetes (caused, typically, by poor lifestyle); and 2) Benefit those with Type 1 diabetes (largely caused by genetics). It can also prevent those with pre-diabetes from developing full-fledged Type 2 diabetes.
The most recent report on runners and diabetes-risk was published in late 2019. It followed more than 19,000 adults for more than 6 years, and compared rates of diabetes in runners vs. non-runners. Result: The runners had a 72 percent lower rate of diabetes development. The researchers concluded: “Participating in leisure-time running is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes in adults.”
10. Running lowers your blood pressure.
In 2016, a world health index called the Global Burden of Disease published results of its investigation into a mind-boggling 388 different health risks, and the effect each of them has on our wellbeing. It found that the number one risk, by a large margin, was high blood pressure. (Even more so than cigarette smoking.)
Running and other moderate exercise is a proven, non-drug-related way to lower blood pressure. A 2019 meta analysis looked at results from 391 randomized controlled trials, and confirmed “modest but consistent reductions in SBP in many studied exercise interventions across all populations.” The same paper reported that the systolic blood pressure lowering effect of exercise among hypertensive populations “appears similar to that of commonly used medications.” A year earlier, a review article in the Journal of the American Society of Hypertension concluded that both aerobic and strength training “elicited significant reductions in both systolic and diastolic BP.”
What kind of running is most likely to improve your blood pressure? It was formerly thought that steady, continuous workouts were most effective. However, newer research has reversed that position. This 2019 meta-analysis supports higher intensity interval training for better blood pressure.
Bonus: Running builds your self-esteem.
And when you have that, you can achieve just about anything. We don’t have a lot of studies to support this running benefit, because it hasn’t been much investigated. (Although this study of diabetes patients found that “Regular aerobic exercise plays an important role in improving self-esteem.”)
But we do have Oprah Winfrey. In the early 1990s, Oprah decided she wanted to do something special for herself during the year of her 40th birthday: She wanted to get in shape, and finish a marathon. Despite her background as being an overweight, non-exercising, African American woman, she nailed her goal in the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon, completing the distance in a respectable 4:29. Afterwards she said, “Life is a lot like a marathon. If you can finish a marathon, you can do anything you want.”
In addition, we’ve heard thousands of stories from runners about how running taught them an important life lesson: Take one step at a time, just one at a time, and you can get where you want to go–in a marathon, in pursuit of your educational goals, in launching a new business, in recovering from loss and disease, and so on.
We’re not saying that running is easy … or that life is easy. Neither are. But running is measurable; we count the miles and minutes; we can see where we were at the beginning of our journey, and how far we have come. This teaches a simple truth: Effort produces results, no effort produces nothing. The effort is worth it.