Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.
May 2017 Winner
Duck-chul Lee, Angelique G. Brellenthin, Paul D. Thompson, Xuemei Sui, I-Min Lee, Carl J. Lavie
Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, Volume 60, Issue 1, June–July 2017, Pages 45-55
For many people, running is exhilarating – they lace up and take off, pounding their stress away on the pavement and enjoying the crisp morning air. For some, it’s a chore – they head out reluctantly, pulling themselves along out of a sense of obligation. For others, it’s a nightmare – what could be enjoyable about gasping for air and enduring muscle pain?
Is it worth us pushing past our feelings; is running really all that good for us? According to an Atlas award-winning study in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, running doesn’t just make us fitter, it actually makes us live longer. In fact, one hour of running will buy us an additional seven hours of life.
“Running is popular and it’s one of the most convenient leisure time physical activities,” said Professor Duck-chul Lee, lead author of the study and professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University in the US. “People don't need equipment; they can run anywhere, anytime. I run two to three times per week, for about one hour each time. I wanted to find out what effect running has on mortality, and whether it can help us live longer.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that we do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, such as walking or cycling, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise, such as running or hiking. But people often encounter barriers to exercise, such as not having access to equipment, or a gym membership or, most commonly, time.
This makes running a popular choice: it requires no special equipment and no gym membership, and just 10 minutes a day can reportedly provide health benefits. The popularity of the sport peaked in 2013, when 19 million people around the world finished a road race.
But other than its convenience, what makes running so good for you? In their study, Prof. Lee and his colleagues reviewed the findings of previous research looking at the impact of running on premature death, to determine what impact running has on longevity. They found that runners have a 25 to 40 percent lower risk of premature mortality, and live about three years longer than non-runners.
“These mortality benefits were consistent in men and women, young and old people, people who were healthy and unhealthy, normal weight, overweight and obese,” Prof. Lee explained. “We also found some potential mechanisms of running on mortality, including improvements in blood lipids, glucose, fat metabolism, muscle and bone health, and even psychiatric benefits, such as reduced risk of depression.”
In fact, the review revealed that running is more important for mortality than any other risk factor – including smoking and obesity. Even short bursts of five to ten minutes of running per day can have a positive effect on mortality. And contrary to some recent studies, they also found there is no upper limit beyond which running is harmful.
Some people have argued that the length of time you live longer is exactly the amount of time you spend running or exercising, and that time commitment is the most frequently cited reason for not exercising. With a simple calculation, Prof. Lee and the team showed that one hour of running gives seven hours of extended life – the benefit is much bigger than the cost.
Is it only running that can lengthen our lives? “It is still not so clear which type of physical activity is best for health,” commented Prof. Lee. “Some studies, including ours, showed that running is best, but the heart does not know whether we are running or cycling or doing another physical activity. The most important thing is that people should find an activity, sport or exercise they enjoy so they can do it for longer.”
Associate professor in kinesiology DC Lee (center) and postdoctoral research associate Angelique Brellenthin receive Elsevier’s Atlas Award for research detailing running’s positive effects on longevity. Elsevier’s Heather Luciano (second left) presented the award at Iowa State University. Dean Laura Jolly and kinesiology chair Phil Martin joined Luciano in recognizing the researchers. Photo by Ryan Riley, Iowa State University.
A conversation with Professor Duck-chul Lee
We all know exercise is good for our health, but can it really make us live longer, and is running more beneficial than other activities? We talked to author Duck-chul Lee to find out what impact running has on mortality, how much we should be doing and what we still don’t know about the best way to be active. Listen now!
Why did you do this review?
Running is popular and one of the most convenient leisure time physical activities. People don't need equipment; they can run anywhere, anytime. However, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, is there an upper limit of running beyond which more running does not provide benefits – or even cause adverse effects, specifically on the heart?
What were the main conclusions of your study?
Runners have a 25 to 40 percent lower risk of premature mortality, and live about three years longer compared to non-runners. These mortality benefits were consistent in men and women, young and old people, people who were healthy and unhealthy, normal weight, overweight and obese. We found some potential mechanisms of running on mortality, including improvements in blood lipids, glucose, fat metabolism, muscle and bone health, and even psychiatric benefits, such as reduced risk of depression.
We also found that there's no harm no matter how much you run – we found the most benefit from running up to about 4.5 hours, or 30 miles, per week. One hour of running provides seven hours of extended life – the benefit is bigger than the amount of exercise or running you do.
You say in the introduction to your paper that many people don't exercise. Why is this?
I think the reason may be that there's no need to be active these days. For example, if you imagine being at home in the past, we had to use our hands more, move more, to clean the house and wash dishes and clothes. But today, there are vacuum cleaners, washing machines and dishwashers – these machines do the work for us. There are also fewer jobs that need human labor – most jobs are very sedentary, involving working on a computer. This change in lifestyle due to technology may be one of the strongest reasons why people are so inactive.
Do your findings apply only to running, or are there other physical activities that can be just as beneficial?
It is still not so clear which type of physical activity is best for health. Some studies, including ours, showed that running is best, specifically in terms of longevity. But other studies showed that cycling, swimming or other aerobic physical activities had significant and even bigger benefits.
I believe that any physical activity that makes you sweat and breathe harder will provide some level of health benefit, including cardiovascular benefits, since the heart does not know whether we are running or cycling or doing another physical activity. I think the most important thing is that people should find an activity, sport or exercise they enjoy so they can do it for longer.
Do you think everyone should take up running?
Running is popular and convenient, it doesn't require any equipment and you don't need to buy a gym membership. However, running is a vigorous, intense physical activity, and, for example, some people with obesity or joint problems might not be able to run.
When people think of the benefits of exercise or physical activity, they think they have to run for at least one hour or exercise for a long time. However, in an earlier study we found that even five to ten minutes or running a day provided significant mortality benefits. And since most people are inactive and sedentary in most developed countries, I think we should focus more on the benefits of any type of physical activity, even for short durations, and having an active lifestyle.
What are you working on now?
We're interested in looking at the different health benefits on cardiovascular disease risk factors: we know that aerobic exercise is good for your heart, but what are the benefits of weight lifting on your heart? We just started a large randomized controlled trial of exercise to look at the benefits of different types of exercise. We will work with 400 people in four groups: the first group will do only aerobic exercise three times per week, one hour each session, for one year. The second group will do resistance exercises only, such as weight lifting. The third group will do half aerobic, half resistance exercises, and the fourth group is a delayed exercise group after one year.
What other research do you think still needs to be done?
We definitely need more studies based on objective measurable physical activity, for example, using pedometers, smart watches or Fitbit physical activity monitors. And we still do not know what amount of physical activity is best, or if there's any upper limit beyond which more physical activity, more specifically vigorous activity, does not provide further benefits, or even harms, on certain health outcomes such as heart health, so that's another important area of research where we need more studies.
- Effects of Running on Chronic Diseases and Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality
- Leisure-Time Running Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk
- Running and Mortality: Is More Actually Worse?
- World Health Organization (WHO) Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health
- Is running the best exercise?
- An Hour of Running May Add 7 Hours to Your Life
- How to start running
About Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases
Each issue of Progress in Cardiovascular Diseasescomprehensively covers a single topic in the understanding and treatment of disorders of the heart and circulation. Some issues include special articles, definitive reviews that capture the state of the art in the management of particular clinical problems in cardiology.
Science impacts everyone's world. With over 2,500 journals publishing articles from across science, technology and health, our mission is to share some of the stories that matter. Each month Atlas showcases research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world or has already done so. We hope that bringing wider attention to this research will go some way to ensuring its successful implementation.
With so many worthy articles published the tough job of selecting a single article to be awarded "The Atlas" each month comes down to an Advisory Board. The winning research is presented alongside interviews, expert opinions, multimedia and much more on the Atlas website.
We aim to showcase some of the articles that can make a real difference and hope you'll find this to be a valuable resource.