Imagine pulling up to the drive up window of your local drug store. You hand the pharmacist your prescription. In just a few minutes a fork lift shows up and plops a treadmill on top of your car! That’s right – your doctor prescribed a treadmill to improve your health and cure your illness!
OK – Maybe I am exaggerating just a bit. You probably won’t be picking up a treadmill at your neighborhood pharmacy, but more and more doctors are prescribing running and other forms of exercise to their patients. These doctors are learning what coaches, personal trainers and runners have known for years. Running is good for your physical and mental health.
If you are currently a runner you probably already knew that. One of the reasons you run is for the health benefits. If you are a new runner or are thinking about starting, you assume that running will improve your health and extend your life. Your assumption is correct. If you run consistently over your lifetime, a longer lifespan is the very probable outcome. A study completed last year in Rotterdam confirmed that. The researchers in Rotterdam concluded that people who run about 30 minutes per day - five days per week extended their lives by 3.5 to 3.7 years.
Two Miles a Day Keeps the Grim Reaper Away
There is no question that running and other forms of physical exercise improve your health. What are the health benefits of running and how does it extend your life? Funny you should ask! Researchers at the University of British Columbia investigated that very topic in March of this year. In that study Warburton and associates found that recent research shows that sedentary individuals can reduce their risk of premature death between 20% and 50% by simply becoming more active. Even moderate amounts of running will decrease your levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), increase your HDL (good cholesterol), lower your blood pressure and improve your cardiac function. The researchers also found that if you increase the amount of calories you burn through physical exercise by 1000 calories or about 10 miles of running per week, you can reduce your risk of premature death by another 20%.
That’s great news for people who are healthy and do not currently have cardiovascular disease. What about those whom are already at risk? Good news! The benefits of running also apply to individuals that already have cardiovascular disease. The researchers determined that burning around 1600 calories or 16 miles of running per week may stop the advancement of cardiovascular disease and 2200 calories or 22 miles of running per week could actually reverse the disease.
Running is a Diabetes Buster
Insulin is a hormone that your body uses to covert sugar and other foods into energy. Diabetes is a disease in which your body does not properly produce or use insulin, which can result in a dangerously high level of glucose in your blood. The most common types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which your body fails to produce insulin. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter your cells to provide energy. Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which your body produces insulin, but you develop an insulin resistance. Your body does not properly use the insulin that is available. Most individuals diagnosed with diabetes today have type 2.
Running will help prevent the development of diabetes and also help manage existing cases. Warburton and associates found that an increase in exercise of just 500 calories per week (about 5 miles of running) will decrease the occurrence of type 2 diabetes. The study also determined physically inactive men with type 2 diabetes were 1.7 times more likely to die prematurely than physically active men with type 2 diabetes.
Running – The Cancer Killer
There have been several studies that show that physical activity can help prevent many types of cancers, particularly colon and breast cancer. Walburton and fellow researchers reviewed over 100 studies and found that higher, more intense levels of physical activity such as running were more effective in protecting against cancer than lower level activities. They revealed that physically active men and women were 30% to 40% less likely to develop colon cancer and physically active women were at 20% to 30% less risk of developing breast cancer than their less active counterparts.
Current cancer patients can also benefit from running. One study investigated by Walburton and associates indicated that the most physically active breast cancer patients reduced their risk of cancer related death and recurrence of breast cancer by 26% to 40%.
Running Is a Bone Builder
Many critics of running will tell you that you should avoid it because it is a high impact activity. They will suggest that you should perform low-impact activities such as stationary bicycling or elliptical machines to minimize stress on your bones and joints. They are partly right but mostly wrong. They are correct that running is a high-impact activity. You are placing stress on your bones with each stride you take. They are wrong in suggesting that you should avoid all high impact exercise. Impact exercise is necessary in order to reduce the occurrence of osteoporosis. This was proven by a recent investigation that showed athletes who participate in high impact sports have higher bone density when compared to athletes who engage in low impact sports.
Your bones are similar to your muscles in the fact that a lack of stress will result in weakness. If you do not exercise your muscles they will atrophy or get smaller and weaker. The same principle applies to your bones. If your bones are not consistently stressed, they will become weak and brittle. If you consistently stress them through high impact activities such as running or strength training, they will respond by growing stronger. Warburton and associates found that running 15 to 20 miles per week is associated with maintaining or building bone density. Another study conducted in the year 2000 showed that intense physical activity led to a reduced incidence of hip fractures in the men studied.
Exercise also helps decrease the severity of existing osteoporosis. In a 6 month study, 98 older women with osteoporosis participated in high impact exercise training. The exercise improved their bone densities by .5% to 1.4%.
How Far Should You Go?
As you can see there is no doubt that running will improve your health, increase your level of fitness and probably extend your life, but how far should you run? The answer to that question depends upon your current situation. Any amount of exercise will help. While most fitness professionals recommend a minimum weekly energy expenditure of 1000 calories (10 miles of running), burning as little as 500 calories (5 miles of running or walking) per week has been shown to be beneficial to your health. This is especially true for individuals who have been sedentary, have very low fitness levels, the frail or elderly. But there is also evidence that a much higher volume and intensity of exercise is more beneficial.
Berkeley researcher Paul Williams and assistant Davina Moussa conducted a study of 1,833 women as part of the National Runners Health Study. The study investigated the benefits of prolonged running. Williams and Moussa determined that running more miles resulted in greater health benefits, up to 40 miles per week. Running over 40 miles per week will continue to improve your level of fitness, but the researchers found that there were few health or life extension benefits obtained from running more than 40 miles per week.
Is There a Dark Side?
One of my favorite movies when I was young was the original Star Wars. A part of that movie that has stayed with me over the years is the eerie scene involving the heavy and raspy breathing of Darth Vader, who represented the dark side.
Running provides many physical and mental health benefits, but is there a dark side to running? Some believe that there is. Occasionally a tragedy occurs in the sport of running. Runners that appear to be fit and healthy collapse and die during their race or training run. During the 2006 Los Angeles Marathon two men died after suffering a heart attack. One runner suffered a heart attack 3 miles into the race while the other collapsed at mile 21. A third runner had a heart attack at the start of the race but survived.
Sudden death is not a common occurrence in running, even during a race as grueling and strenuous as the marathon. It is even rarer to see multiple deaths, such as the unfortunate events during the 2006 Los Angeles Marathon, but sudden deaths do occur. Studies vary in data concerning the number of sudden deaths among runners. One report said that about 7 of every 100,000 runners will die suddenly. Another recent study determined that sudden death associated with moderate to vigorous exercise was very low at 1 per 36.5 million hours of exercise. In 2005, researchers conducted a study of 215,413 runners that competed in the Marine Corps and Twin Cities Marathons over a 30 year period . The researchers found that only 4 sudden deaths occurred due to unsuspected heart disease. That is a very low .002% which is much lower than risks of sudden death among non-runners. Regardless of which numbers you choose to believe, the incidence of sudden death among runners is rare.
Sudden death during exercise is a relatively rare occurrence, but unfortunately it does happen. If running and exercise improves your health and extends your life, why do these tragedies happen? Does running increase the chances of sudden death? As with most complex questions, the answer is partly yes and partly no.
This question became a full blown controversy in the early 1980’s with the death of running author Jim Fixx. Fixx became famous as the writer of the international best selling book “The Complete Book of Running”. This was one of the first books to introduce the joys and benefits of running to the general population and was credited for helping fuel the running boom of the 1980’s. Fixx died of a heart attack while running and immediately the blame for his sudden death fell upon running and vigorous exercise.
The most common cause of death in today’s society is coronary artery disease. Almost every investigation agrees; nearly all runners that die suddenly during exercise already had advanced cardiovascular disease. None of these diseases are caused by running. It has been proven time and time again that running and other forms of exercise help prevent heart disease. A runner with heart disease is more like to suffer from a fatal heart attack when exercising than when at rest. This makes sense because the strain on the heart is obviously greater during strenuous exercise. However, because of the health benefits of exercise, if those same runners were to avoid exercise, their risk of sudden death at all times would rise, not fall.
The death of Jim Fixx is a perfect example of this. Fixx already had heart disease at the time of his death. He was a former smoker and had a family history of heart disease. His father had died of a heart attack at age 43. Fixx also had elevated blood cholesterol. Three of his coronary arteries were blocked, one at 95%, one at 85% and one at 50%. He died at age 53, outliving his father by 10 years. Running did not kill Jim Fixx. On the contrary, it almost certainly allowed him to live a longer, happier and more productive life.
There is not a doubt in the world that habitual, consistent runners live longer, healthier and happier lives. Running helps prevent, manage and reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, cancer and other diseases. It keeps your weight at a healthy level, lowers your blood pressure, reduces bad cholesterol, increases good cholesterol, builds your strength and improves your cardiac function. Running also reduces your stress level, anxiety and depression.
Runners that already have heart disease are slightly more at risk of sudden death during exercise than when they are at rest, but without exercise their risk of sudden death is greater at all times. If you currently have, or have a family history of, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, if you are a smoker or if you are over 50 you should be screened by your doctor before you begin or continue running.
Running is good for you and data shows that it will add years to your life. So run on. Runners do live longer.
The Life Saver Workout
Most fitness professionals recommend a minimum training volume that burns at least 1000 calories per week. Studies have shown that this amount of training will result in a 20% to 50% reduction of premature death. Use this simple training schedule to burn the minimum suggested 1000 weekly calories. Perform each workout at an easy to moderate pace. In order to obtain the desired result you must burn at least 1000 calories per week on a consistent basis for the rest of your life.
Monday – 1 mile
Tuesday – 2 miles
Wednesday – Off
Thursday – 2 miles
Friday – Off
Saturday – 2 miles
Sunday – 3 miles
The Life Extender Workout
The estimated increase in life expectancy from consistent, habitual exercise varies slightly from study to study, but most agree that burning 2000 calories per week through exercise on a consistent basis will extend your life by 1.3 to 3.7 years. Here is a simple weekly workout that expends approximately 2000 calories and should add a couple of years to your life. Keep in mind that you need to stay active and physically fit for your entire lifetime. Your pace is not critical for these workouts. Perform most of the runs at an easy pace. You will improve your fitness even further if you do some of your workouts at a faster, more intense pace.
Monday – 2 miles
Tuesday – 3 miles
Wednesday – 4 miles
Thursday – 3 miles
Friday – Off
Saturday – 3 miles
Sunday – 5 miles
The Life Maximizer Workout
As you read earlier, Williams and Moussa determined that the health benefits of running increase as mileage increases up to 40 miles per week. Here is a routine that that you can do to safely and comfortably run 40 miles per week. This schedule uses workouts that range from 4 miles to a long run of 10 miles that is done one time per week. If you are currently unable to run the suggested distances, begin with your existing long run distance and build up by adding one mile each week until you reach the suggested workout mileage. Do most of these runs at an easy pace. To increase your level of fitness even more, do a couple of these weekly runs at a slightly harder pace. Do not do two harder runs on consecutive days. You will need an easy run between each hard effort for muscle recovery.
You do not have to limit yourself to 40 miles. You will continue to accrue fitness and race performance benefits up to about 75 or more miles per week. But, research has shown that health and life extension benefits begin to drop off sharply after about 40 miles per week.