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Run Down by Running?: To the Contrary, Running Improves Physicality with Age, Study Finds

Running I’ve been running regularly for a good many years now. While I like to run outside, I traditionally run on a treadmill, hoping that the soft landing will supplant any potential damage done to my knees if I were to run everyday on the hard pavement. 

While I always see myself exercising regularly, I must

admit that I’ve been somewhat concerned about what effect running for so long will have on my knees, perhaps rendering me disabled by the time I reach my senior years.

But according to new research on the topic, I need not fret.

The benefits of exercise are well documented.  That’s not in dispute.  But when researchers began investigating what effect regular running would do on the joints of those 50 and older, many who were aware of the study had a sneaking suspicion that there’d be a rise in the number of orthopedic injuries and a general increase in limited physical ability.  Their suspicions proved to be largely off-based.

The researchers that actually conducted the study began investigating the impact of running on people over the age of 50 back in 1984 – a time when seeing runners on the street wasn’t exactly commonplace.  The study’s lead researcher, Dr. James Fries from the Stanford University School of Medicine, went against what was then the convention wisdom, more exercise among older adults would increase disability.  His against-the-tide mentality proved prophetic.

Several years after the study was initiated, Fries had all 538 participants fill out questionnaires, detailing what their exercise habits were at the time and if they had any trouble performing daily tasks, like walking, grabbing, lifting and getting in and out of a chair.  When Fries compared the results of the running crop to those among the sample that did not run regularly at the start of the study, the non-runners encountered disability much earlier in life when compared to the runners and when they encountered disability.  And it wasn’t just a year or two.  On average, initial sign of disability among non-runners was 16 years prior to the runners’ initial sign of disability.

But the benefits of running were not relegated to increased physicality as one ages.  When researchers looked at the death records of those that participated in the study, then looked at whether or not those that died were runners or non-runners, 34 percent of the non-runners had died.  Among the runners?  Only 15 percent!

These findings did substantiate Fries’ initial hypothesis – that physical activity such as running would consolidate the amount of time disability occupies one’s life.  But even he was surprised by just how big of a role running played in sustaining physicality and life in general.

As the researchers note, this study should not suggest that running is the fundamental aspect to extending life.  It does in part, but it’s just as likely that the people that ran regularly also had eating habits that were beneficial to extending life and physicality.  Further, at some point in life, the body breaks down and can’t do what it once did.  Researchers found this to be the case among the runners, as the average amount of time spent running diminished significantly after 21 years – an average of almost 70 percent less.  But the point is living as healthy a life for as long as possible.  And as the researcher’s study suggests – a study published in the August 2008 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine – running can keep one’s life running on full.

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