Why running is the most effective anti-aging medicine


A new study claims that the benefits running offers include three extra years of life - and far better quality of life during those years. We dug into the research to learn more about this weighty claim.

There's been a long-standing debate between non-runners and runners about the "magical" health benefits of running. From helping you to lose weight, sleep better, cultivate endurance and calm your mind, runners will passionately defend and promote their favourite pastime.

As Dr Craig Nossel, Head of Vitality Wellness and a keen runner himself, says, "Running does wonders in improving not only physical wellbeing, but also mental wellbeing. We at Vitality have seen how effective running is as a stepping stone to other healthy lifestyle behaviour changes, both at an individual and at a community level."

While health professionals agree that regular physical activity does your mind and body a world of good, did you know that running specifically has been found to have substantial longevity benefits?

According to a recent paper titled Running as a Key Lifestyle Medicine for Longevity: "Running may further improve certain cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as adiposity [fattiness] and cardiorespiratory fitness, even after it is matched on energy expenditure with other types of vigorous-intensity physical activity. This may indicate that there is something inherent to running that is uniquely advantageous."

Running significantly reduces the risk of death

Interestingly enough, when the researchers compared a group of runners to a similar group of people who did other kinds of physical activity (PA), they found that "runners who were inactive in other PA had a 27% lower risk of death versus non-runners who were active in other PA."

"These results suggest that running may possibly provide a larger mortality benefit than other types of PA. However, as expected, the greatest mortality benefit, a 43% lower risk of death, was observed in runners who were also active in other PA. Therefore, to get the maximal mortality benefits, participating in both running and other various PA is the best choice." Here's a summary of the researchers' key findings:

5 reasons runners get the best health benefits

  • Runners live longer: The study found that after adjusting for age, sex, smoking status, alcohol consumption, socioeconomic variables, body mass index, and other types of physical activity, runners have 25% to 40% lower risk over non-runners of death by any cause.
  • Runners are far less at risk of cancer and heart disease: Those who run regularly have a 30% to 50% reduced risk of cancer-related mortality, and a 45% to 70% lower risk of death related to cardiovascular disease (CVD), compared to non-runners. If all non-runners became runners in this population, 16% of deaths by any cause and 25% of CVD mortality deaths would be prevented in the context of population-mortality burden.
  • Running is also good for your mental health: There's additional evidence that running can protect against mortality resulting from neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Physical activity has been found to improve cognitive function and reduce depressive symptoms, potentially lowering mortality related to some neurological or psychiatric conditions.
  • It's better than other sports at keeping you slim: Running may confer superior benefits over other types of vigorous-intensity physical activity, since it is more strongly associated with lower body weights and smaller waist circumferences.
  • Runners tend to practice other healthy habits: Runners also tend to engage in other healthy behaviours that contribute to their increased longevity, such as maintaining a normal body weight, not smoking, and consuming light-to moderate amounts of alcohol.

The research paper concludes that there are "strong plausible physiological mechanisms underlying how running can improve health and increase longevity." In fact, the researchers found that "runners had a 3.2 years longer life expectancy, compared with non-runners. Therefore, a net "running" to "longevity benefit" ratio is roughly 1:7 (0.43:2.8), suggesting 1 hour of running provides an additional 7 hours of extended life."

Would you run an hour for an extra 7 hours of life?

If you feel running "just isn't for you" or if you struggle to practice it more regularly, be encouraged by these points:

  1. The movement of running comes naturally to humans. As Dr Nossel explains, "The reality is that we are actually all born runners. Humans are the most efficient endurance animals on the planet." This he attributes to our ability to run on two rather than four limbs, and our unique capacity to thermo-regulate (keep cool) through sweating.
  2. Even a jog will do the job. You don't have to sprint to gain the benefits of running (although interval training can help you achieve similar cardiorespiratory fitness results in a third of the time). Even slow jogging raises your heart rate enough to be considered a vigorous-intensity physical activity. Just 30 minutes of that a day could help you achieve your daily recommended level of cardio. (For best results, alternate this with strength training sessions thrice a week, suggests Discovery biokineticist Mari Leach.)
  3. Running is easily accessible and affordable. This kind of physical activity is convenient, affordable (compared to other kinds of sports) and requires no specialised training or equipment. Plus, there are many teams (such as local running clubs, Team Vitality) and events (like free, weekly 5km parkruns or the Discovery Vitality Run Series) where you can find enthusiasts to support and motivate you.
  4. It really is never too late to start. Deidre Larkin from Johannesburg took up running at the age of 78 to build strength after being diagnosed with osteoporosis. She started with a simple "walk three steps, jog three steps" routine, and just kept going. Now at 85, she's broken world records for her age group, rarely visits a doctor, takes no medication and is filled with energy and vigour. Plus, she has no intention of slowing down! Be inspired by this remarkable woman here.

So if you're looking for an anti-aging solution, lace up those running shoes and try a trot. While there's no way to turn back time, the chances are high that running will allow you to enjoy good health and more memories just a while longer!


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