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Running For Your Life

There's an old joke that runners tend to live longer than the rest of us, but they spend all their extra time running. Regardless of whether or not that's true, there's some new research that indicates that the benefits of running continue late into life, and even runners in their 70s and 80s are living longer, healthier lives.

Stanford University researchers began tracking 284 members of a nationwide running club in 1984, when many doctors thought that kind of vigorous exercise might do older people more harm than good, causing a variety of injuries that would leave them hobbled by their exercise habit as they aged.

The researchers sent the subjects, who were in their 50s at the time, questionaires every year asking them detailed questions about their exercise habits, weight and ability to perfom everyday activities such as walking, dressing, grooming themselves. They did the same thing with 156 similar people who never went running, and tracked who in the two groups died by 2005

The runners slowed down over the years -- running an average of four hours a week at the beginning but only an average of about 76 minutes a week by the time they hit their 70s and 80s. And their ability to perform every day tasks also declined. But their vitality tended to last late into life -- they didn't start to show the signs of aging until about 16 years later on average than the non-runners. And as a group they remained much more vital than the non-runners. In fact, as time went on the gap between the group widened.

In addition, the runners had a significantly lower risk of dying -- not only from heart attacks and strokes but also from cancer, infections and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, the researchers reported this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. After 19 years, only 15 percent of the runners had died compared to 34 percent of the other group.

Contrary to predictions, the runners were also no more likely to develop arthritis as they aged, according to another paper by the same group in this month's issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

So even if runners do spend their extra time in their jogging shoes, they seem to be enjoying their lives a lot more even when they're off the track.

What about you? Are you runner? Still hitting the pavement late in life?

If you've got more questions about running as you get older, check out the MisFits column in next Tuesday's Health section, where Howard will discuss why worries about hurt knees are now excuse to slack off.

By Rob Stein  |  August 14, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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I'd be interested to know the cause and effect here -- are runners healthier because they run, or are they runners because they're healthier? Running is very hard on the body, so it may well make sense that the folks who are still running regularly in their 50s were physically and mentally hardier to begin with -- so their continued running may be a symptom of their hardiness, rather than the cause of their good health.

Example: I'm now 42. I've always had asthma/allergies, never been especially hardy, but I took up running at 35 to lose baby weight, and got in really good shape (well, for me). Then we moved back east and I got out of the habit. When I started back up again about a year ago, I ran into asthma problems (MD air is a LOT worse for running than New Mexico!), which made me change my normal habit of an afternoon run, and made it a lot harder to fit in. Then I hit cold and flu season, and lost most of January. Then in March I sprained my ankle; when it got better, I got back to running, only to discover that it had turned into tendonitis; the doc has ordered me not to run at all for now, and has strongly encouraged me to switch to biking.

I'm not using this as a "woe is me" excuse. But it does seem to me that each one of these kinds of events presents a temptation to quit running. So people who are ten years older than I am but who still haven't quit may have something I don't. Maybe it's physical robustness that shields them from some of these problems. Maybe it's a degree of mental toughness that gives them the determination to drive through it. But whatever it is, it seems to me those characteristics are likely to lead to a longer, more active life, whether they run or not.

Posted by: Laura | August 14, 2008 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I am in my late 50s now and have been a runner since my 20s - with no real breaks since my mid 30s. I have found myself slowing down a bit in the last couple of years, not sure if that is age or some other thing, but I keep going. I increasingly find myself healthier and with fewer aches and pains than friends my age. And looking younger as well as feeling younger than them. I was never the kind of person you would think would be a runner in my youth, I was a chubby kid and teenager and in fact have fought a battle with my weight all my life. And I must say that the running has not directly helped in weight loss, at least not much, diet is much more important. But I sincerely hope that I can continue jogging at some level into old age. I do think it is really really good for you. Other vigorous exercise would be as good I am sure, and maybe I will switch to something else if my joints give me trouble. But really, people, you will feel better if you exercise regularly, and running is a very simple and efficient way to do that.

Posted by: Catherine | August 14, 2008 9:15 AM | Report abuse

the participants in the study were part of a running club - that leads me to assume that these are *real* runners. by that, i mean that they don't take months off or even weeks off. they run consistently regardless of weather or lifestyle changes.

now that i'm almost 40 and have been running off and on for 25 years, i KNOW that i can no longer take time off. each time i do i get nagging injuries. Gentle, consistent running is the key.

Running 4 hrs/week is NOT hard on your body if you consistently do it week after week and year after year. this study just confirmed it.

Posted by: long time runner | August 14, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

In the first line of the post "runner's" should be "runners."

Posted by: JNP | August 14, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I am not a runner but, while never an athlete, have been active all my life. Now 64, I have also been regularly hiking since moving to Colorado 29 years ago. I have noticed the same anti-aging amongst similarly engaged friends and acquaintances as found in runners. I think it is the CONSISTENT activity and then sensible diet that is at work.

Posted by: Errol | August 14, 2008 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Laura, you need to strengthen your leg and core muscles to prevent injury, as well as improving your nutrition (Supplements and Foods that contain Glucosamine, Chrondroitin and MSM will help lubricate joints/tendons and rebuild cartilage. Most people run without strengthening their muscles adequately if at all. This almost ALWAYS leads to overuse injuries like the ones you mentioned you had sustained. If your muscles are not adequately strengthened relative the volume of running (duration or mileage) that you're doing, they'll tire out and transfer more of the stress to tendons and ligaments.

Posted by: D | August 15, 2008 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I am 54. I have run fairly consistently for 35 years....averaging perhaps only 4-8 miles a week during that span. I have been plagued by lower back problems my entire adult life, but my backs seems to hurt more when I don't exercise. Running, to me, is a way of fighting the inevitable
process of decline. But it works. It is simple. enjoyable. Rewarding. It is also incredibly stress-relieving. After a particularly tough day, I love a two mile run with a warm-up/ warm-down walk. In all, I am 100% positive I get to have "more fun" because of regular exercise.

Posted by: Jim | August 15, 2008 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I used to run, but switched to vigorous walking over concerns about high impact activity over a long period of time (I'm 54). I still feel good after a walk (though I've always had to force myself to do it - I find the activity itself incredibly boring). So, my question is, does this apply to walking as well as running?

Posted by: walking vs running | August 18, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

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