Running comes with many benefits, but can it keep you young? Here's a look at some of the research on the topic.
When Justus Ortega walked into a gathering of older adult runners in Boulder, Colorado, in 2014, he was reminded of the 1985 movie “Cocoon” about seniors who suddenly feel young and healthy after interacting with aliens. “The runners seemed like teenagers. They were energetic and playful, and their mind frame was very different from people I’d met in senior centers with low energy,” remembers Ortega, a kinesiologist and director of the biomechanics lab at Humboldt State University.
Ortega wasn’t entirely surprised. Some of the seniors had taken part in a small clinical study Ortega and his colleagues had conducted. Published in 2014, the study found that older runners used less energy when they walked, compared to older walkers, and that the muscle energy older runners expended was similar to that of young sedentary adults. “Older adults’ muscles normally become less efficient and use as much as 20 percent more energy to walk the same distance as young adults. But older runners maintained that youthful, muscular whole-body efficiency,” Ortega says. In other words, running in older age was associated with healthier, more efficient muscles that made walking less taxing.
But why? Ortega and his colleagues further analyzed the data for answers and published a second study earlier this year. It didn’t yield a definitive answer. “It wasn’t the way they were moving, and it wasn’t the way they were using their muscles. I can only speculate and point to other evidence that suggests vigorous activity like running repairs the mitochondria, the energy-producing factories of our cells, and that in turn improves efficiency of the muscle tissue,” Ortega says.
While the results of Ortega’s studies and the evidence he’s citing are observational and don’t prove cause and effect, running is already associated with many health benefits that may help combat the challenges of aging.
Running is a vigorous aerobic activity: It gets the heart and lungs pumping, which is crucial for cardiovascular health at any age and especially in our older years, when the risk for chronic disease increases. “Aerobic activity causes the blood vessels to relax and in doing so helps to keep blood vessels elastic and helps prevent high blood pressure,” says Dr. Daniel Munoz, medical director of the cardiovascular ICU at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
High blood pressure is associated with heart attack, stroke, dementia, kidney damage, sexual dysfunction, vision loss and maybe even bone loss and sleep apnea.
“Running is an efficient way to exercise aerobically and can be a key tactic in minimizing the chance of developing heart disease and stroke,” Munoz points out.
Even more benefits: Aerobic exercise helps you control your weight, build muscle strength, reduce body fat, lower blood sugar and cholesterol, build endurance, stave off depression and stress, increase energy and self-esteem, improve sleep and live longer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The aerobic activity of running is also good for brain health, as it sends more blood flow to the brain and keeps the blood vessels healthy. Running may also help to challenge your brain, which may help preserve cognition. “There are areas of the brain that are critical to carrying out the motor activity of running, to navigate where you’re going and monitor fatigue. So it has to be beneficial to overall brain health,” says Dr. David Charles, chief medical officer of the Vanderbilt Neuroscience Institute.
Bone health declines in older age. Our bone mass peaks at around age 30, and then it declines at a rate of at least 1 percent each year after age 40. Too much bone loss leads to osteoporosis, the condition marked by brittle bones that break easily.
Weight-bearing exercise like running is key to maintaining bone health. Bones are living tissue, and placing force on them stimulates new cell growth. “Bone responds to force in a positive way,” Ortega says. “It helps you improve or maintain your bone mineral density so you don’t lose it as fast, and it helps you build bone.”
And it may not take that much running to help you build bone in older age. A 2017 study suggested that running just one or two minutes per day was associated with better bone health in both pre- and postmenopausal women.
Running isn’t the right exercise for everyone.
If you have osteoarthritis, a wearing away of the cartilage in your joints, running may make joint pain worse, although it’s not clear if running causes more degeneration of the joints.
Running also puts older adults at risk for falls and injuries. “Injuries take longer to heal in older adults than young adults. By running, you’re exposing yourself to more risk of bone or muscle injury,” Ortega notes. If you have joint pain, balance, vision or neurological problems, you’re at an increased risk for a fall.
A running regimen can also be risky for people with untreated heart or lung disease, since aerobic activity puts a big demand on those organs and may increase the risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Munoz advises that before starting a running program, you should consult a doctor if you have chronic disease, including heart disease or osteoarthritis, or if you have any concerning symptoms. “Any chest symptoms brought on by exertion should prompt medical evaluation. Warning signs include chest discomfort or shortness of breath that occurs with activity,” Munoz says. Those symptoms should be checked out by a doctor if they develop for any reason, even if you’ve already been exercising for a long time.
If you haven’t exercised in a while, that fact alone may warrant a doctor’s consultation before lacing up your sneakers, to make sure you’re healthy enough to get moving.
Don’t despair if your doctor determines that running might not be the best fit for you. There are other ways to exercise aerobically, with less impact on your joints, such as swimming, cycling and using an elliptical machine.
And all aerobic activity seems to have similar benefits. “I would even speculate that any aerobic activity when performed vigorously has the potential to change the mitochondrial efficiency in whatever muscles you’re exercising,” Ortega says.
However you choose to exercise, Ortega advises that you start slowly. “Build your endurance and intensity over time. Work with a trainer if you can through a senior center or gym. Or join a walking or hiking group,” Ortega suggests. “If you get to a point where you feel like you want to try running, start in small increments and consult your physician before you start.”
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, like running, or at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, like brisk walking.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re an exercise or running rookie or a lifelong devotee — you’ll reap the rewards as long as you keep moving. And it may even make you feel like a kid again.