Running, according to nearly a dozen of the nation’s top longevity researchers and decades of study, is and always has been one of the best age-preventers. Yes, we all know on some level that running is good for us. It helps control weight, strengthens the heart and lungs, gives us the best kind of feel-good high. But look specifically at what it can do for us as we age—and how it can pre emptively combat some of the most common age-related diseases and ailments—and it’s clear that running is as close to a miracle drug as we’ve got. And it’s not just that our favorite sport can tack years onto our lives—a full three, if you recall that landmark study published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases last March—it’s that it can add more life in our years. Run, and your health, energy, and quality of life are superior in ways both subtle and absolutely vital. Living to 100 is meaningless without that.
WE WERE ALL BORN TO RUN
Look to our ancient ancestors, and it makes sense why running is a natural life-extender. For about 2 million years, the activity was integral to our survival.
“Our bodies adapted to running because we had to do it to get food,” explains David Raichlen, Ph.D., an anthropologist who studies runners and the evolutionary history of exercise at the University of Arizona.
The need to constantly be on the move caused our hearts to enlarge, our capillaries to grow, Raichlen says. In a fascinating 2014 paper in Trends in Neurosciences, he lays out how running allowed Homo sapiens to reach old age. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors had two copies of a genotype that greatly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Yet during this time, humans began living much longer than other mammals. Raichlen believes that’s primarily because we were constantly running—for our food, from our food—which minimized the chances of developing these diseases, despite having the high-risk genes.
THE SECRET STARTS WITH THE HEART
Put your palm up to the left side of your chest. Feel that strong beat? That’s the biggest age-beating benefit your run is giving you. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more Americans than all types of cancer combined. As we age, our arteries stiffen; they can’t widen as well to accommodate an increase in bloodflow, and this is particularly true in the aorta, the artery leading from the heart, and in the carotid arteries, which run from chest to head. When these insidious changes happen, major cardiac events aren’t far behind.
YOUR BODY ON RUNNING
From heart to muscles to the brain and immune system, running at any age and for almost any amount of time turns the body into a more efficient version of itself. “If you could put the effects into a pill, it would be a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical company,” says exercise historian David Raichlen, Ph.D.
Heart: Aerobic exercise restores elasticity to arteries, allowing them to behave years younger. This helps decrease the likelihood of kidney disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and inflammation.
Running, whether it’s via a run crew or at a local race, can help you create essential social connections. That’s more important than ever.
Running not only maintains artery dilation and elasticity, it actually restores youth and vigor to the vessels. Take your first step, and all your muscles—quads, calves, glutes, even your lats, shoulders, and biceps—demand more oxygen. To feed them, you suck in air, your heart beats faster, and it pumps that oxygenated blood through the arteries and to every muscle fiber. This process is more than just a delivery mechanism; it is silently and invisibly keeping the arteries strong and healthy. And it means that no matter who you are—a 40-something joining a run crew or a retiree chasing grand-kids—you’re transforming your heart into a younger version of itself. What’s more, science shows that when your arteries are healthy, everything outside the cardiovascular system is usually in good shape, too.
HONING YOUR MIND
In 2016, researchers at the University of Arizona found that running can change the brain in many of the same ways that activities requiring fine motor skills do, like racquet sports or playing an instrument. This was surprising, say lead researchers Raichlen and Gene Alexander, Ph.D., because conventional logic says that running is anything but mentally taxing—put one foot in front of the other and try not to trip. “
Running is actually a pretty cognitively demanding sport,” says Raichlen.
RUNNING VS. EVERYTHING ELSE
Your body doesn’t distinguish one type of aerobic activity from another—your heart, for example, doesn’t know the difference between a bike ride that gets your pulse up to 150 and a run that does the same. Still, there are reasons why running is the top form of exercise to keep the muscles and mind young. And they’re best illustrated in this massive 2017 international study:
IS THERE A RIGHT AMOUNT TO RUN?
That’s the million-dollar question, and the one researchers say they get the most often. Everyone wants to know the minimum they can get away with and still reap the benefits—the optimal dose, if you will. While there is nuance to that answer (for example, the type and amount of running you need to improve vascular health is different than what you need to increase VO2 max), the overwhelming consensus is “not that much.” “I think what people don’t realize is you get a huge fraction of the benefits from relatively modest amounts of running per day—just a few miles,” says Michael Joyner, M.D., a physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and one of the world’s leading experts on human performance and age. In their broad 2017 epidemiological study on running, exercise epidemiologist Duck-chul Lee, Ph.D., and cardiologist Carl Lavie, M.D., found that running just two and a half total hours per week is enough to reap all its youth-promoting benefits. “Compared to not running, any running is good,” adds Lee. And the good news for those logging three-plus hours a week is that, while you don’t get exponentially more benefits the more you run, you also won’t be hurting your health, as some experts had warned in the past.
BUILDING & PRESERVING STRENGTH
Take one glance at the gams of the elites lining up at a marathon, and you know running carves lean muscle. But the most significant impact it has isn’t on aesthetics, but what it does internally, on a cellular level. Just as it does for arteries, running is believed to restore and rejuvenate mitochondria, the powerhouses of each cell; this means muscle fibers can generate energy more efficiently to contract.
That’s key, because as you age, your mitochondria naturally become less effective at generating that chemical energy. “Essentially oxygen leaks across the inner membrane of the mitochondria, requiring your muscles to use more oxygen,” says Justus Ortega, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology and the director of the Biomechanics Lab at Humboldt State University. ”What’s really interesting about running is that it seems the vigorous nature stimulates the repair of mitochondria, and allows them to generate energy as efficiently as younger adults.” Ortega and his University of Colorado team documented evidence of this in a 2014 study that found older runners not only have better mitochondrial health, they’re also highly efficient runners.