Is running good for you?

Depending on who you ask, running will either add years to your life or age you prematurely. Here are the facts.

Health Agenda
May 2017

Long before we learn our ABCs, most of us learn how to run. It's not just for fun, running is hardwired into our DNA. Research by a leading Harvard anthropologist published in Nature showed that endurance running was so fundamental to early human survival that it shaped the mechanics of our entire body.

So unless you have mobility issues or limiting injuries, you were literally born to run. Yet many of us stop somewhere between puberty and middle age, never to start again. Why? There are a lot myths about running's impact on your health – let's take a look at how they stand up.

Do runners die early?

You may have heard of Jim Fixx, the American who wrote the bestseller The Complete Book of Running. He died of a heart attack while, you guessed it, running. What’s less well known is that Jim had a family history of serious heart disease and had been a heavy smoker for much of his life.

Look at the broader picture and there's real evidence that running prolongs life and lowers your risk of premature death by 25-40%. Scientists from the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University analysed large existing studies and found that running for just a couple hours each week added 3.2 years to your life. For people who ran for just 2 hours a week, every hour spent running added 7 hours to their life. That’s a very worthy kickback. Longer runs weren't counterproductive, but they didn't improve life expectancy further.

Does running destroy your knees?

In fact, the opposite might be true if you’re healthy. New research at Brigham Young University found running actually lowered knee inflammation. So running may actually protect against knee arthritis rather than cause it.

Admittedly that study looked at young, fit people. But there is evidence to back it up if you look at population-wide studies, as the highest incidence of knee arthritis is found in overweight and obese people rather than long-time runners. Plus, weight loss is a significant step in improving knee pain, and running can help you lose weight and keep it off.

You might need to ease into running if you’re overweight, unfit or have a previous injury though. Try adding a few 50-metre jogs to your walk at first and go up from there in both speed and duration as you feel able. Unless your doctor or physio explicitly tells you to pack away your sneakers, it's worth keeping at it.

Do you need really expensive shoes?

There is a lot of research looking at running shoes out there, and while much of it can seem contradictory and complicated, a few themes stand out. The first is that you'll have the lowest injury risk if you choose a running shoe that’s comfortable, not what the sales assistant is pushing.

Your own feet are the best judge of what works for you, and any shoe that feels uncomfortable, either in the shop or after a few kilometres, probably isn’t right.

Some swear that you'll do best with no shoes at all, and there is evidence to suggest that overly cushioned shoes caused more damage to knees, hips and ankles than barefoot running. However, that research was done on fit young runners without injuries, on a treadmill. If you're middle-aged and carrying a bit of extra weight running over concrete, results are likely to differ.

That said, barefoot running can be a lot of fun. If you're keen to give it a go, ease into it with short stints over grass or sand, as you'll probably need to build up your foot strength. You can gradually increase your times and distances if you're enjoying it; take it extra slow if you have recurring injuries. 'Barefoot running' shoes sound contradictory, but they add a layer of protection against sharp objects.

Does running make you fatter… or too thin?

A study in the Journal of Obesity kept tabs on 12,951 distance runners over 2-3 years and found the majority gained body fat and increased their waist circumference, even though they were still running. Turns out, those who gained the most fat decreased their distance.

But even runners who kept up their distance gained weight, only those who significantly increased their mileage didn’t. Why? Because most hadn't changed what they were eating and our metabolism slows as we age.

Running's not a magic bullet for leanness, so you may need to moderate your diet as you age to avoid gaining weight. That said, some people can take running for weight loss too far. If you find you're constantly competing to drive the numbers on your scale down with longer distances, it's time for a chat with your GP. There’s a delicate balance that will deliver optimal health and longevity and it's just as dangerous to go too far in one direction as another.

Can anyone run?

Despite its many pluses, running isn't for everybody. If you can't pound the pavements, you can get a strenuous cardio workout through exercises like the elliptical trainer, swimming and rowing.

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