Even Short Runs Have Major Health Benefits

Numerous long-term studies — some involving thousands of participants — have shown that running benefits people physically and mentally.

By Markham Heid

Running is one of the most popular forms of exercise in America. It may also be one of the healthiest.

Numerous long-term studies — some involving thousands of participants — have shown that running benefits people physically and mentally. Research has also found that runners tend to live longer and have a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer than non-runners.

One might assume that in order to reap the biggest rewards, you need to regularly run long distances, but there’s strong evidence linking even very short, occasional runs to significant health benefits, particularly when it comes to longevity and mental well-being.

“We’ve found that going for something like a 2-mile run a few times a week gets you pretty much the full benefit of running in terms of lower mortality,” said Dr. James H. O’Keefe, the director of preventive cardiology at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri.

Why short runs may be so good for you

During the past decade, O’Keefe has published multiple studies on running for health and longevity. In one of those studies, he and his colleagues analyzed long-term health and exercise data collected from around 5,000 European adults ranging in age from 20 to 92. Compared with nonrunners, people who ran between 1 and 2.4 hours per week at a slow or moderate pace enjoyed the greatest reductions in mortality — greater even than among runners who logged more miles at a faster pace.

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions.

For example, a 15-year study on more than 55,000 Americans ages 18-100 found that running just five to 10 minutes per day at a slow pace (under 6 mph) was associated with “markedly reduced risks” for all causes of death. It was also enough to extend a person’s life by several years.

“When it comes to running, the largest health and mortality benefits occur at the front end,” said Dr. Duck-chul Lee, one of the study authors and an associate professor of physical activity epidemiology at Iowa State University. Even running for less than 1 mile — assuming a person is running at least a few days a week — is enough to meaningfully improve cardiovascular health and longevity, Lee said.

The physiological benefits of running may be attributable to a group of molecules known as exerkines, so named because several of the body’s organ systems release them in response to exercise. While research on exerkines is relatively new, studies have linked them to reductions in harmful inflammation, the generation of new blood vessels and the regeneration of cellular mitochondria, said Dr. Lisa Chow, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota who has published research on exerkines.

Much about these molecules requires more study. But Chow said research has already found that brief bouts of vigorous exercise — such as short runs — are enough to trigger some of these exerkine-related benefits.

Short runs can bolster your mental health, as well.

A recent research review on exercise and depression found that adults who got the widely recommended 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity per week had a 25% lower risk of depression compared with people who didn’t exercise at all. But those who completed just half of the recommended 2.5 weekly hours still had an 18% lower risk of depression compared with people who didn’t exercise. The findings suggest that the bulk of the reduction seems to come up front.

“If someone were to start running even once or twice a week, instead of not exercising at all, that’s where we should see the most benefits” in terms of mental health, said Karmel Choi, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who has investigated the relationship between exercise and depression.

A little goes a long way

Running can be strenuous exercise. While some people love the challenge — and the endorphin rush — of lengthy runs, they’re not for everyone. But there is plenty to be gained by putting one foot in front of the other, even if it’s just around the block.

“The growing consensus in the field is that the benefits of running start to accrue within minutes,” said Dr. Rajesh Vedanthan, an associate professor of population health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine who has studied the relationship between running and longevity.

“The key message here,” he added, “is that any physical activity is much better than none.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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