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Run Toward a Healthy Future: Discover Benefits of Running for Aging Gracefully

Beth Bradford

Dec 7, 2022

Even if you've never run before, it's never too late to start

Confession here: I hated running so much in middle school that I had to get a late note to class after gym class because I couldn’t complete the mile run in enough time. I didn’t want to train.

I picked up running three miles here or there to help burn off the excess beer and pizza from college, but I took up endurance training just before my 30th birthday. I never imagined running more than three miles at a time, let alone 26.2. But something inside me wanted to challenge myself, so I signed up (and finished) the Chicago Marathon in 1999.

Since then, I’ve incorporated running into my exercise practice. Granted, I no longer run as fast as I used to, but I’m ok with that. And I don’t see a marathon any time in the near future. I’m ok with that, too. 

These days, running gets out some of the cobwebs that seem to accumulate much more quickly as I age. Even just a quick mile is enough to wake up my heart, lungs, and legs.

Aside from burning calories, running has other benefits. Here are some of the benefits of running that I’ve found (and experienced).

Runners live longer

A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine followed members of a running club and non-runners (who were generally healthy) who were over 50. At the start of the study, the runners spent about four hours running each week. After 21 years (yes, they were in their 70s and 80s), the runners weren’t running as long but still averaged about 76 minutes of running a week. That’s about 25 minutes three days a week.

The study found that only 15% of the runners had passed away at the 21-year follow-up compared to 34% of the non-runners. The runners also had fewer disabilities. They were still able to continue with their daily activities such as getting out of a chair and dressing themselves, or their disabilities started much later than the non-runners.

A later study in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease found that runners live on average three years longer than non-runners.

Running slows age-related changes

As we age, our muscle mass and bone density decrease. It sucks, I know. Oxidative stress also shortens our telomeres, and shorter telomeres are linked to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Our cognition also declines. 

Because running is a weight-bearing exercise, it can help maintain bone density. If we run hills, we can keep our muscles strong. Physical exercise like running lengthens our telomeres. Low- and moderate-intensity exercise improves our attention and memory. In other words, as we age, we don’t need to be looking for that PR or winning our age group. We just need to stay active.

Running improves mental health

Let’s face it, we’re in a mental health epidemic, and mental illness can really tear a family apart. Running can improve your mental health, particularly as you age. Staying in an active running community can be your source of support and give you a sense of purpose. That’s key for mental health.

Research supports this. In a meta-analysis in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, running can improve your mood, build self-esteem, and decrease anxiety. We all could use a little bit more than that these days. 

You’re never too old to start running

Deirdre Larkin began running at age 78 to avoid the progression of osteoporosis. Since she took up running, she no longer needed medication for osteoporosis. She’s still running at age 90.

If you’re not a runner now, it’s not too late to start. You can even just walk a little faster than you’re used to in order to get the heart rate up. 

I am also very tech-savvy and keep an eye on my heart rate when I exercise. If you have a heart condition, you might need to work with your doctor to make sure it’s safe. Walking still has incredible benefits.

Start where you are. If you can’t even run for a minute, start with five seconds of running–or fast walking–then recover for 55 seconds, keeping an eye on your breathing and heart rate. If you can’t seem to recover for those 55 seconds, recover for a minute and 55 seconds. Then repeat. If you’re at just 5 seconds of running to 55 seconds or one minute 55 seconds, continue for 5 to 10 minutes.

If you maybe could run 20 seconds at a time, recover for 40 seconds and begin again. If you can run for a whole minute–however slow or fast–recover for a minute. Start with 10 minutes total for three days a week, and add a few minutes more each week. 

If you want to make this a mindfulness meditation, you can head to my Mindfulness Walk or Run meditation on Insight Timer. I break up the pace into four one-minute intervals, where you start with a minute of walking and focus on a different body part each minute. You can gradually increase the pace if you choose.

In conclusion, running is one of the best exercises you can do to keep your body healthy as you age. It improves your endurance and strength, helps to prevent bone loss, and helps to keep your mind sharp. Running is an activity that can be done regardless of age or ability level. With a consistent running routine, you can enjoy the many health benefits it provides for years to come.

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