Regular running slows the effects of aging, according to a new study from Stanford University that monitored 500 older runners for more than 20 years. The researchers said that elderly runners had fewer disabilities, a longer span of active life and were half as likely as aging non-runners to die early deaths.
When study leader James Fries began the research in 1984, the prevailing wisdom was that vigorous exercise would do older folks more harm than good. There were fears that the long-term effect of the then-new jogging craze would be floods of orthopedic injuries, with older runners permanently hobbled by their exercise habit.
The study tracked 538 runners over the age of 50, comparing them to a similar group of non-runners. The subjects, now in their 70s and 80s, have answered yearly questionnaires about their ability to perform everyday activities such as walking, dressing and grooming, getting out of a chair and gripping objects. The researchers found that 19 years into the study, 34 percent of the non-runners had died, compared to only 15 percent of the runners.
"We did not expect this," Fries said, noting that the increasing gap between the groups has been apparent for several years now. "The health benefits of exercise are greater than we thought."
Fries was also surprised that the gap between runners and non-runners continues to widen even as his subjects entered their ninth decade of life. He speculated that the effect was probably due to runners' greater lean body mass and healthier habits in general.
While the effect of running on delaying death has been more dramatic than the scientists expected, it was found to also be associated with fewer early deaths from cancer, neurological disease, infections and other causes.
And the dire injury predictions other scientists made for runners have fallen completely flat. "Running straight ahead without pain is not harmful," he said, adding that running seems safer for the joints than high-impact sports such as football, or unnatural motions like standing en pointe in ballet. "The study has a very pro-exercise message," he concluded. "If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise."
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Source: Stanford University Medical Center