People run for many reasons: to improve their cardio health, reduce stress, get outdoors and even to lose weight. All are great motives for lacing up your shoes and logging miles. But one new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found a compelling new reason to run your first marathon.
Researchers from multiple universities tracked a group of first-time marathoners who were relatively new to running and exercise in general. Over the course of six months, which included training and participating in the marathon, the group showed significant improvements in blood pressure and aortic stiffness, which was equivalent to a four-year reduction in vascular age. Basically, these new marathoners’ arteries were exhibiting characteristics of being roughly four years younger than when they started training.
So, is running the fountain of youth, and should you drop what you’re doing to sign up for a marathon? Well …
Dr. Nina Radford, a cardiologist and the director of clinical research at Cooper Clinic, is quick to point out the arterial benefits seen in this study were a function of training for the marathon over a six-month period rather than a direct result of running the marathon itself. She also mentions another study showing blood pressure and arterial stiffness improved across a range of exercise durations and intensities, while there was no change in the control group.
“This emphasizes the notion that any exercise is better than none,” she says.
THE IDEAL MILEAGE FOR HEART HEALTH
If you don’t want to run a marathon, that’s fine — you can run shorter distances and still receive significant benefits to your health. But choosing an exact mileage is difficult and varies by individual.
The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends the equivalent of 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, with muscle-strengthening activities taking place twice per week. Dr. Radford says it’s difficult to pinpoint the “sweet spot” in terms of how much running is required to benefit your arterial age — and that cardiovascular health is a function of many different factors, not just arterial stiffness. That said, she’s got some guidelines for planning your runs.
“For any individual runner, there are a number of ways to achieve that goal of 75–150 minutes of exercise per week,” she says. “One person may run three miles at a 10-minute mile pace five times a week (15 miles total) to meet those guidelines, or another person may run five miles at six-minute mile pace five days a week (25 miles) to meet those guidelines.” So, it’s less about the total mileage and more about exercising regularly.
In fact, a BMJ study last year found any amount of running is linked to a lower risk of death. And runners with different weekly mileages but equivalent minutes per week may see similar mortality benefits.
CAN YOU RUN TOO MUCH?
On your quest for a healthier heart, you may be tempted to run farther and more frequently, challenging yourself with marathons and then ultramarathons. Conversely, you may be satisfied with the occasional 5K — everyone’s different. But research indicates endurance athletes can develop physiological adaptations to the heart and vascular system, including enlargement of the cardiac chamber. However, despite these potentially problematic changes, endurance athletes have a higher life expectancy than the general population.
“It does not appear that these changes shorten the lives of elite endurance athletes overall, but they may face the risk of managing longer-term consequences like heart rhythm abnormalities,” says Dr. Radford.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So, if you want to run, run. It’s a great cardio workout with numerous benefits to your heart. And if you participate in endurance runs, like a marathon, you might even see a decrease in your arterial age. But as with all things, a little moderation goes a long way.