Running – even late starters slow aging process
May 24, 2018
According to the results of a long term study by Stanford, running in middle and older ages helps to counteract some of the effects of aging and help prolong active lifespan.
The study, begun in 1984, also addressed concerns that running may harm older people over both the short and long term. It tracked a group of 538 runners over fifty years old and compared them with 423 healthy non runners. A total of 284 runners and 156 controls completed the 21 year follow-up. These subjects are now in their seventies and eighties and have been completing an annual questionnaire on their ability to perform everyday activities such as walking, dressing, getting up from a chair and gripping objects. National death records were used by researchers to determine which subjects died and their cause of death at the 19 year point.
The difference in mortality rates between the two groups is striking. While only only 15 percent of the runners had died after 19 years, 34 percent of the non runners had died. Not only had running slowed cardiovascular deaths, it has also been associated with fewer early deaths from cancer, neurological disease, infections and other causes. The gap between the runners and non runners continued to widen as they entered their nineties. Senior author of the study, Dr James Fries, believes this effect is due to runners’ greater lean body mass and healthier habits.
The study was originally instigated by Fries to support his Compression of Morbidity Theory. This proposed that disability and morbidity can be compressed into the final years, or months, of life rather than just having longer life spans with long periods of disability. One of the reasons for this compression would be that the onset of chronic diseases would occur later in life due to improvements in preventative health behavior. Such behavior might include not smoking, eating sensibly and taking regular exercise such as running. While this theory has been debated on both political and scientific grounds, more generally some wondered if running might be detrimental in the long term.
It was found that at the beginning of the study, runners ran an average of about four hours a week. After 21 years, their time spent running had fallen to an average of 76 minutes per week, but they were still reporting health benefits from running. As expected, 21 years of aging caused both groups to became more disabled, but the onset of disability was later for runners. Runners’ initial disability occurred 16 years later than non runners. In addition to later onset of disability it was found that the gap between runners’ and non runners’ abilities widened over time and has continued for several years. This was a surprise to Fries who said “The health benefits of exercise are greater than we thought“.
A separate study addressed earlier concerns that running may be detrimental for middle to older aged runners over the long term. It found that long-distance running among healthy older individuals was not associated with increased knee osteoarthritis. Runners also do not require more total knee replacements than non runners according to Fries.
While there may be continued debate over the compression of morbidity theory, this study would certainly suggest that running can be a valuable part of the healthy lifestyle choices that may slow the aging process for many people. Although knee health appeared not to differ between runners and non runners there are other running injuries which can appear over time and good prehab, physical therapists and running shoes can make life a bit easier.
On the next difficult day it will be encouraging to think that each step may be slowing the aging process.