You’ve probably heard the saying, “Exercise is medicine.” Well, it’s not just a saying; it’s actually the truth. Scientific research proves that regular exercise (150 minutes per week, which is about 30 minutes, five times per week)—and running in particular—has health benefits that extend well beyond any pill a doctor could prescribe. Studies have shown that running can help prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, some cancers, and a host of other unpleasant conditions. What’s more, scientists have shown that running also vastly improves the quality of your emotional and mental life. It even helps you live longer. Here’s how:
If you’ve been working out regularly, you’ve already discovered it: No matter how good or bad you feel at any given moment, exercise will make you feel better. And it goes beyond just the “runner’s high”—that rush of feel-good hormones known as endocannabinoids. In a 2006 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers found that even a single bout of exercise—30 minutes of walking on a treadmill—could instantly lift the mood of someone suffering from a major depressive order. In a May 2013 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in which rats and mice got antidepressant-like effects from running on a wheel, researchers concluded that physical activity was an effective alternative to treating depression.
And even on those days when you have to force yourself out the door, exercise still protects you against anxiety and depression, studies have shown. Moderate exercise may help people cope with anxiety and stress even after they’re done working out, according to a 2012 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise. A 2012 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health proved that just 30 minutes of running during the week for three weeks boosted sleep quality, mood, and concentration during the day.
Ever heard someone call running their “drug”? Well, apparently, it actually is pretty similar. A 2015 study in Neuropharmacology showed that running causes the same kind of neurochemical adaptations in brain reward pathways as some addictive drugs.
Running helps you lose or maintain weight.
You know that exercises burns calories while you’re working out. The bonus is that when you exercise, the burn continues after you stop. Studies have shown that regular exercise boosts “afterburn”—that is, the number of calories you burn after exercise. (Scientists call this EPOC, which stands for excess post oxygen consumption.) That’s kind of like getting a paycheck even after you retire.
And you don’t have to be sprinting at the speed of sound to get this benefit. This happens when you’re exercising at an intensity that’s about 70 percent of VO2 max. (That’s a little faster than your easy pace and a little slower than marathon pace.)
Running strengthens your knees (and your other joints and bones, too).
It’s long been known that running increases bone mass, and even helps prevent age-related bone loss. But chances are, you’ve had family, friends, and strangers warn you that “running is bad for your knees.” Well, science has proven that it’s not. In fact, studies show that running improves knee health, according to Boston University researcher David Felson in an interview with National Public Radio.
“We know from many long-term studies that running doesn’t appear to cause much damage to the knees,” Felson said. “When we look at people with knee arthritis, we don’t find much of a previous history of running, and when we look at runners and follow them over time, we don’t find that their risk of developing osteoarthritis is any more than expected.”
Running will keep you sharper, even as you age.
Worried about “losing it” as you get older? Working out regularly will help you stay “with it.” A 2012 study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review concluded that the evidence is insurmountable that regular exercise helps defeat age-related mental decline, particularly functions like task switching, selective attention, and working memory.
Studies consistently found that fitter older adults scored better in mental tests than their unfit peers. What’s more, in stroke patients, regular exercise improves memory, language, thinking, and judgment problems by almost 50 percent. The research team found “significant improvements” in overall brain function at the conclusion of the program, with the most improvement in attention, concentration, planning, and organizing.
Running reduces your risk of cancer.
Maybe running doesn’t cure cancer, but there’s plenty of proof that it helps prevent it. A vast review of 170 epidemiological studies in the Journal of Nutrition showed that regular exercise is associated with a lower risk of certain cancers. What’s more, if you already have cancer, running (with your doctor’s approval) can improve your quality of life while you’re undergoing chemotherapy.
Running adds years to your life.
Even if you meet just the minimum of amount of physical activity—(30 minutes, 5 times per week), you’ll live longer. Studies show that when different types of people started exercising, they lived longer. Smokers added 4.1 years to their lives; nonsmokers gained 3 years. Even if you’re still smoking, you’ll get 2.6 more years. Cancer survivors extended their lives by 5.3 years.
Running Is Good for Your Heart
Running is the king of cardio. Running even five to 10 minutes a day, at slow speeds (how does a nice 12-minute mile sound to you?) is associated with a drastically reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, according to a landmark study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology
Compared with never-runners, regular runners have half the chance of dying from heart disease. Every time you run, you decrease your resting heart rate, so your heart doesn’t need to work as hard, says exercise physiologist Greg Justice, founder of AYC Health & Fitness in Kansas City.
Runner’s Get a Real High
When you run, your brain pumps out two powerful feel-good chemicals, endorphins and endocannabinoids, explains Justice. The latter sounds a lot like cannabis, right? That’s for a reason. Chemically, the endocannabinoids your body produces during a run aren’t all that different from marijuana’s mood-altering chemical, THC. The most studied mid-run endocannabinoid, called anandamide, was actually discovered when scientists were trying to figure out how pot gets people lit.
Running Strengthens Your Joints
A Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study of nearly 100,000 runners and walkers found that, nope, running doesn’t up the risk of osteoarthritis—even people who cover 26.2 miles on the regular. In fact, the study showed runners were half as likely to suffer from knee osteoarthritis compared with walkers. Surprised? Every time you pound the pavement, you stress your bones and cartilage, just like your muscles, causing them to spring back stronger, explains Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta. Low-impact exercises like walking, spinning or swimming don’t have the same bone-building benefits of running.
Running Burns Serious Calories
Running requires a lot of fuel (aka calories). In fact, the average 150-pound person will burn about 12.2 calories per minute running a 10-minute mile, Hamilton says. Not too shabby, eh? And that’s the body benefit of running on flat terrain. Head outside where wind and hills up your effort and you can expect to burn even more. (Related: The Top 3 Hill Workouts for Runners)
Running Is a Killer Leg Workout
Your body’s biggest muscles are all in your legs, and running is advantageous to all of them: your inner and outer thighs, your gluteus maximus, quads, hamstrings, and calves, Justice says. It’s like a dozen leg workouts in one.
Running Works Your Core
The lower body isn’t the only part of you that feels the benefits of running. It’s a core-carver, challenging not only your six-pack rectus abdominis, but also the deeper core muscles, including your obliques, erector spinae, and transverse abdominis. Those deep muscles play important roles stabilizing your spine, transferring power between your swinging arms and legs and sucking in your gut, Justice says. (Related: How to Tone Your Abs During Any Workout)
You Can Always Fit It In
Traveling for work? Don’t belong to a gym? Have only 10 minutes to work out? Whatever your workout constraints, you can still run, explains Hamilton. “That’s an extra advantage for busy women who can’t seem to make other workouts or classes fit their lifestyle.” And remember: The best workout is the one you’ll actually do.
Runners Are Awesome
The running community is a strong one and the community benefits of running are often immeasurable. “I can’t think of a better place to find wellness-focused people than a running group,” says Debora Warner, founder and program director for Mile High Run Club, a running-only fitness studio in New York City. Whether you join a running club or a charity’s running team, or just take a look around during your first 10K, you’ll be amazed at all the support and good vibes you get.
Running Counts As Meditation
“Many runners find that the time alone allows them to think and problem solve,” Hamilton says. “Taking a run-break from a stressful project can help you return feeling refreshed and insightful.” A mounting body of research shows that meditation can boost your gray matter, improve focus, and fight depression and anxiety.
While running is no substitute for the help of a trained human professional, an ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal
study showed that physical activity acts as an effective alternative to treating depression. Combine your miles with a pre- or post-workout meditation session, and the benefits are substantial, research published in the journal Translational Psychiatry reported.
Running Can Improve Your Memory
Can’t remember what you had for lunch yesterday, or where you put your favorite pair of New Balances after last week’s Barry’s Bootcamp session? Lace up and hit the road, because going for a run can directly affect your brain in the short and long term. A 2014 study at the University of British Columbia revealed that regular aerobic exercise—the kind that gets your heart rate up and makes you sweat, à la SoulCycle or running—can boost the size of your hippocampus. And that’s a good thing: The hippocampus is the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. (In fact, time on the treadmill may counteract Alzheimer’s symptoms.)
You Can Do It Right Now
“With running, there’s not much of a ‘learning curve’ like there might be for other fitness activities like group dance classes, Olympic lifting, CrossFit, or yoga,” Hamilton says. “Running’s also not as form-dependent as swimming, and because running is a such a natural motion, if you don’t overthink it, your reflexes will just kick in.” And away you go!
It Doesn’t Take a Lot to Reap the Benefits of Running
You don’t need to be a marathon runner to reap all these running-related rewards. Instead, according to a meta-analysis published in the
Running just 50 minutes per week—the equivalent of one six-mile run or two 5Ks—can protect the body from risk for stroke, arthritis, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and some cancers.
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