Even A Little Running Lowers Risk for Death

Laird Harrison

November 08, 2019

A little running has big health benefits, and lots of running may not do much more, researchers say.

Compared with no running at all, fewer than 50 minutes of running per week reduced the risk for death from all causes by 27%, report Zeljko Pedisic, PhD, associate professor of public health at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues.

"We could not find an increased or decreased benefit with frequency, pace, or duration," he told Medscape Medical News.

The finding suggests that people can obtain substantial benefits with less than the amount of exercise typically recommended by public health authorities.

The study by Pedisic and colleagues was published online November 4 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Running has long been associated with better health and longevity, but researchers have debated just how fast, how long, and how often individuals need to run in order to experience these benefits. Some studies have even suggested a U-shaped effect, with the longest distance runners suffering increased risk from their sport. Research is scant regarding the effects of running on heart disease and cancer.

To see whether they could answer some of these questions, Pedisic and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 14 studies that had a total of 232,149 participants.

Data from the 14 studies were self-reported, with runners making up about 10% of all study participants. Follow-up in individual studies ranged from 5.5 to 35 years. The mortality data, which were collected from national death registries, showed that 25,951 study participants across all studies died during the follow-up period.

Pooling these data and controlling for other types of physical exercise, the researchers found that running reduced the risk for mortality by 27%, the risk for cardiovascular mortality by 30%, and cancer mortality risk by 23% for all participants.

The finding that such significant benefits can be obtained by running only 50 minutes a week stands in contrast to many official recommendations.

For example, the World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Pedisic and colleagues found that even the smallest amounts of running in the studies (less than once a week, less than 50 minutes a week, less than 6 miles per hour, and less than 500 metabolic equivalent of task minutes per week) conferred similar all-cause mortality benefits.

The researchers were not able to determine what benefits might accrue with less running because 50 minutes per week was the minimum amount in the studies they found.

The studies investigated larger increments of running time, up to 4.5 hours per week, but the reductions in risks remained constant in this meta-analysis, Pedisic explained.

That doesn't prove that more running doesn't provide more benefit, Pedisic said. "We can't really say it's not better. We can only say from our results, it's not clear if it's better or not."

Likewise, Pedisic and colleagues could not find evidence that excessive running damages the runner's health. They noted that such strenuous running is rare enough that it is difficult to obtain a sample size large enough to derive statistically significant data.

The study could not be used to show the superiority of running over other forms of physical activity, Pedisic said. The differences in benefits among sports are generally not statistically significant, he explained.

"Making comparisons between different sports and their health outcomes I don't think is very useful," he said. "If you prefer swimming, you'll probably go ahead and choose swimming regardless of whether it has slightly less benefit."

Still, he said, the finding that a small amount of running has great benefits can make it an attractive choice for individuals who want to be physically active but are short on time.

Pedisic has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Dashiell Harrison contributed to this story.

Br J Sports Med. 2019;0:1–9. Full text

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