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December 10th, 2021

Running While We Age

by Tim Waanders, PT, DPT

It is no secret that as we get older, we start to feel like our muscles and joints get stiffer and our limbs become harder to move. Aging influences all the systems of our body; diminished cardiopulmonary endurance, balance impairments, postural changes, decreased reaction time due to nervous system changes, and muscle & bone loss are all common bodily changes that naturally occur as we age. Decreased mobility leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, which in turn increases the risk of developing chronic disease. 

However, a regular, well-balanced exercise routine can help counteract these changes, and in some cases may prevent them altogether. Running is especially important, because it is a full body, rigorous activity that is accessible to everyone. Research even shows it’s likely the most beneficial type of exercise we can do!  Below are 5 benefits that come from running as an older adult:

1. Less physical disability

Contrary to popular belief, running does not necessarily increase someone’s risk of developing osteoarthritis. In many cases, running actually helps prevent osteoarthritis from occurring because of more motion provided to the joints and the weightbearing load provided to the bones of the lower extremities. In general, running helps slow the decline in muscle function that normally occurs with aging. In turn, this leads to a decrease in physical disability typically associated with the aging process. As you can imagine, this also leads to a decrease in the amount of doctor visits runners have compared to the non-running population. 

2. Less chronic health issues

Some researchers are beginning to look at running as a form of lifestyle medicine, as many in the healthcare community look for alternatives to the traditional model of using prescription drugs to treat every condition of the human body. A study published in 2017 gathered data on the effects of running on longevity, and found that runners have a significantly decreased risk of premature death compared to non-runners. Further, runners have less risk of developing chronic health problems over their lifetime. Studies have shown that running is protective against the development of most cancers, cardiovascular disease, and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Most importantly, these benefits are heightened in those who have been running across their lifetime (meaning, the longer you have been running, the more likely you will see these benefits). 

3. Better cardiovascular fitness

The cardiopulmonary (or cardiovascular) system is one of the most affected body systems due to aging. Typical age-related declines include max heart rate, cardiac output, vital capacity, and aerobic capacity amongst other measures. However, routine aerobic exercise, such as running, counteracts these declines. Older adults who run regularly have been found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure measures than non-running populations, which typically increase as we age. As mentioned previously, runners are also less likely to develop cardiovascular disease because their aerobic exercise keeps their heart healthy and strong. The jury is still out on whether there’s an upper threshold for the amount a runner should do before they actually are at risk for developing cardiovascular disease, but it is abundantly clear that running any amount is much better than not running at all.

4. Improved brain function

I previously mentioned that running is protective against the development of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but how does that happen? Aerobic exercise is key in promoting blood flow to the brain, and in doing so over the long-term can actually increase gray matter in certain parts of the brain that usually would see decreases due to aging. This process, known technically as neuroplasticity, gives the brain a fighting chance against degenerative diseases by bulking up the neural connections because the cardiovascular system is essentially powering it with more blood. Thus, these changes help improve cognitive function into old age.

5. Greater psychological well-being

Besides the physical aspects running can improve, it also has a major impact on our mental health. Exercise, and running specifically, has been proven to relieve psychological stress, boost mood, and improve self-esteem and confidence. Running releases higher amounts of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that play a role in mood, alertness & attention, and motor control. Running can simply just make us feel better, which can trickle down into improving all aspects of our quality of life.  Depression rates in older adults are among the highest of most age groups, so running can be a high-quality and low-cost tool to combat this mental health issue. Further, running can be a great community sport that can unify people who might otherwise be lonely as life changes and they get older. 

So how does running change as we get older compared to our younger years?

Although runners are typically in better physical shape than the general population, they may still see declines in maximum speed, power output, muscle strength, and flexibility, as well as altered running biomechanics. Though evidence is varied, some studies show that older runners are more likely to end up with running injuries as they age because of these factors. One of the most highly proven ways to reverse this course is to add a strength training routine to your exercise regimen. Despite the associated changes with age, a progressive resistive exercise program can still improve muscular strength and power output, improve gait speed, and help protect against soft tissue injuries typically associated with weakness due to aging. 

If you have any questions, reach out to your trusted physical therapist who can help set you up on a program that targets any weaknesses or flexibility issues to keep you running for as long as you would like!

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