A new study of first-time London Marathon runners found that their basic training program produced important health benefits. After four months, the runners had lower blood pressure and greater flexibility in their cardiac arteries.
The researchers judged the subjects to have erased four years from their “vascular age.” That’s not the same as saying they would live four years longer, but it’s a nice nudge in that direction.
The study, “Training for a First-Time Marathon Reverses Age-Related Aortic Stiffening,” was published yesterday by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The researchers came from several academic and medical institutions in London. “Our study shows it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging in the blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months,” said senior author Charlotte Manisty, from University College London.
Vascular stiffness is the normal hardening of the arteries that progresses with age. It is often accelerated in those with poor diets, low fitness, and obesity. It was once though irreversible, explains Philadelphia cardiologist Julio A. Chirinos, in an accompanying editorial, “The Run Against Arterial Aging.”
Turning Back Arterial Stiffening
However, emerging research, such as the new paper, is finding that aerobic exercise training can in fact turn back artery stiffening. No known pharmacological approaches have the same effect.
The London researchers investigated 138 London Marathon participants who were heart-healthy and had never run a marathon. They had an average age of 37, and 51 percent were female. They underwent physiological tests and cardiac MRIs six months before the marathon and two weeks after.
During that time, the runners’ systolic and diastolic blood pressure dropped an average of three or four points, and their cardiac flexibility increased nine to 16 percent, on average, in key heart arteries. They also had slightly lower body weights, body fat percents, resting heart rates, and increased vo2 max measures. Importantly, the research team concluded: “Greater rejuvenation was observed in older, slower individuals.”
The men subjects finished London in an average time of 4:30 and the women in an average time of 5:24. These marks were approximately 30 minutes slower than the overall average finish times at London.
Low Key Training
The low key training program followed by subjects constituted a crucial part of the study. Researchers wanted to avoid time- and money-intensive strategies like personal training and hospital-administered programs. These would likely have worked, but can’t be advanced as public-health measures because of the administration and expenses involved.
In fact, the researchers didn’t supervise or monitor subjects’ training. They were more interested in “real-world” results. They simply pointed out the London Marathon’s “Beginning Runner’s Plan” and then left subjects to their own devices.
In the published study, the researchers say that they believe their subjects ran three times a week for 17 weeks at an average of about six to 13 miles a week. Maybe, but the current Beginner Plan on the Virgin Money LondonMarathon website is both interesting, and a bit tougher than that.
It advises 16 weeks of gradually increasing three-day-a-week efforts that mix run-walk days with steady-run days. The peak week, week 13, includes two 50 minute runs and one 3:30 run-walk (28-minute run and 2-minute walk x 7). That probably amounts to almost 30 miles for the week.
At any rate, it seems that all of the 138 study starters completed the distance. Another 52 dropped out with injuries before they got to marathon day.
Never Too Late to Get Younger
“This study emphasizes the importance of lifestyle to modify the aging process, particularly as it appears ‘never too late’ to gain the benefit,” the researchers wrote. Also, they were impressed that a beginning marathon training program can deliver clear benefits “from real-world exercise behavior that people enjoy and may continue if motivated and free from injury.”
In his editorial, Julio Chirinos noted, “The immense paradoxical gap between the growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating the benefits of exercise and the increasing epidemic of physical inactivity in the U.S.” Against this tidal wave of obesity and chronic illness, “Contemporary long distance runners represent a remarkable and largely unexplored opportunity for scientific collaboration.”
In conclusion, Chirinos sounded a bit like Ponce de Leon. “The fountain of youth could come closer than we thought,” he wrote. “We had better make a run for it.”