I started running in 1975, when I was eighteen. This was during the early stages of the “running boom” which Running World magazine has pegged as starting with the creation of three road races in 1970: the Seattle and New York City marathons, and Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race. According to Wikipedia, “Twenty-five million Americans took up some aspect of running in the 1970s and 1980s, including President Jimmy Carter. Many running events, shoe and apparel manufacturers grew and formed to accommodate the demand.”
Not everyone was on the running bandwagon back then. Times too numerous to count, non-running family and friends told me running wasn’t safe for young women, that it was unhealthy and I was going to destroy my knees, or (from one brother) use up a finite number of heartbeats and die sooner than I would otherwise. I ignored them all and kept running. In 1990 I joined another boom: trail and ultra distance running.
Forty-two years later I’m still running and don’t plan on stopping.
If you’re already a runner, you know that running makes you feel good. The human ability to run – covering large distances over diverse terrain in short periods of time – is likely the evolutionary prompt that caused our brains to grow to their current size.
Researchers studying exercise and runners have provided a number of reasons why running is, in fact, beneficial and healthy. Physiologically: our heart, lungs, muscles, bones and joints are all stronger and function better; running boosts our good cholesterol, as well as our immune systems; running can prevent or reduce the effects of diseases like osteoporosis, early diabetes, and high blood pressure; and body fat and weight are reduced and then maintained by regular running. Inside our heads: the endorphins produced by running, especially if we’re outdoors, elevate our mood; running helps reduce or even eliminate stress and depression; overall focus and creativity are enhanced; and running increases energy while building confidence.
Recent research, digging down to the cellular level, provides even more reasons why running is good for us. Earlier this year, a Mayo Clinic study published in Cell Metabolism concluded that high-intensity aerobic exercise – like running – reverses some cellular aging by improving mitochondrial function within cells. Mitochondria are the tiny energy-producing engines of most of our body’s cells. Through a respiration process of their own, mitochondria feed our cells by producing the energy required for them to function while also regulating cellular metabolism and growth. Mitochondria are crucial to overall health because well-functioning cells – in our muscles, organs, indeed throughout our bodies – keep us functioning optimally. Aging decreases mitochondrial function, but the Mayo Clinic study asserts that high-intensity exercise improves the aerobic capacity of mitochondria as well as muscle protein content, especially in people over age sixty-five. In other words, regular intense aerobic exercise significantly assists our cells in producing and synthesizing new proteins, which in turn reverses a major adverse effect of aging, allowing us to remain strong and healthy as we age.
Another recent study looked at our aging chromosomes, those bits of DNA in all of our cells that provide the code for how they divide and function and thus, how we function. In particular, in this research from Brigham Young University, published in the medical journal Preventive Medicine, Dr. Larry Tucker looked at telomeres, a protective part of each strand of DNA in each of our cells.
As described by T.A.Sciences, “Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job, just as without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job.” Telomeres shorten significantly with aging, resulting in gradual cell deterioration.
The BYU study found that those adults who exercised with intensity on a regular basis had significantly longer telomeres, their cells effectively nine years “younger” than those of their sedentary counterparts.
Dr. Tucker used data collected by the Center for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey over several decades. Among other things, that survey tracked 62 activities people may have engaged in during a 30-day period, and also included data on telomere length for its nearly 6000 subjects. Analyzing that data, Dr. Tucker discovered that sedentary people had the shortest telomeres. Strikingly, those with low and moderate physical activity levels had similarly short telomeres. Only those reporting high levels of physical activity had significantly longer telomeres.
Dr. Tucker’s study defines high-intensity activity as at least 30 to 40 minutes of running, five days a week.
Researchers don’t yet understand how intense exercise might protect telomeres but theorize it might have to do with reducing inflammation and oxidative stress within cells, two factors known to adversely affect cell health.
Today’s runners have a long list of positive reasons for their exercise habit to provide skeptical family and friends. All of these beneficial changes to body and mind – large and small, observable and invisible – can give us extra years of happy and healthy living. Additional good news: it’s never too late to start. Benefits were seen even in those over age sixty-five. If you’re not already a runner, now you know it’s definitely worth trying.