What if we told you there was a way to lower your risk of a heart attack, reduce stress, decrease the likelihood of developing certain cancers, reduce the risk of dementia, and strengthen your muscles and joints? Well, it’s as easy as lacing up a pair of running shoes and heading out the door.
“People who regularly exercise, whether that’s swimming, cycling, or running, have an overall lower risk of death compared to those who don't, as well as a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, less risk of hypertension, diabetes, and a better lipid panel. It also generally lowers the risk of certain cancers like bladder, breast, and colon, and there’s a reduced risk of dementia and improved cognition,” says Dr. Ted Farrar.
Dr. Farrar has been a family medicine physician for 24 years and a sports medicine fellowship director for 11 years. He’s also served as the Medical Director for IRONMAN 70.3 Florida for the past five years and is a four-time marathoner, two-time IRONMAN 70.3 finisher, and three-time IRONMAN finisher.
An Iowa State University study of 55,000 adults showed that running for just five to 10 minutes a day was associated with up to a 50 percent reduction in the risk of having a fatal heart attack.
Dr. Farrar explains that just like any other muscle, the heart gets stronger when it’s exercised: “The left ventricle changes. The muscle gets thicker, and the chamber of the ventricle becomes larger,” he says. “With each beat, the heart can push out more blood, so it doesn’t need to pump as frequently. That, along with increased vagal tone (the vagus nerve controls your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your body relax faster after stress) allows for a lower resting heart rate as part of the physical adaptation to aerobic exercise.”
People who exercise regularly also have a better lipid panel, which means there’s less plaque development inside the heart. This helps reduce the chances of having a heart attack. Running has plenty of other cardio-protective factors as well, like reducing the incidence of obesity, lowering the risk of diabetes, and improving appetite.
Dr. Farrar explains how runners' hearts often show an increase in blood flow to the capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in the heart. This creates an alternative pathway for blood to flow if there is a blockage in a main artery, which could help prevent a fatal heart attack.
“I see it all the time where folks may have some mild to moderate levels of coronary blockage, but they have such good collateral flow that the heart functions just fine, and there’s no evidence of heart attack,” he says.
A Journal of Nutrition review of 170 studies showed that regular exercise is associated with a lower risk of developing certain cancers like colon (40 to 50 percent), breast (30 to 40 percent) and prostate (10 to 30 percent).
Dr. Farrar explains that the reasons for this are unclear, but may have to do with the body becoming more effective at dealing with oxidative stress.
In general, those who exercise regularly have an immune system that functions better than those who are sedentary. Light to moderate exercise enhances the immune response so your system can fight a cold more easily if you’re exposed. But Dr. Farrar points out that more running isn’t always better.
“There’s a point when the load from accumulative stress actually suppresses the immune response,” he says. “If you need to log high mileage, think about other ways to reduce stress like massage, sleep, and nutrition. These become more important as you push the body’s limits.”
A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that runners who logged 15.3 miles a week had a 40 percent lower risk of dying from Alzheimer’s than non-runners. In addition, research has shown that exercise can improve cognition, decrease stress, and, in some people, reduce symptoms of anxiety. The improvement in blood flow to the brain and increased capillary formation caused by running also allow for better availability of oxygen and glucose delivery.
“In general, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Dr. Farrar says. “With exercise, you have improved blood flow to the brain, and there’s definitely a neurochemical effect caused by running. Running can improve relaxation, lower stress levels, and help with mental clarity.”
Dr. Farrar explains there is a sweet spot where this benefit in mental clarity occurs. “For novice runners, it’s somewhere between 30 to 90 minutes,” he says. “Much more than that and they end up exhausted, which is a bit counterproductive. There’s a sweet spot where you finish a run, have some recovery and a bit of food, and people tend to feel more relaxed and have more clarity. I think it’s the reduction in stress hormones following exercise that makes people feel better.”
Contrary to what some people might tell you, running isn’t bad for your joints. Actually, it’s the opposite. Like Dr. Farrar says, “motion is the lotion” and the more you use a limb, joint, or muscle, the better it will perform in the long term.
“You can have many years of pain-free running without any incidence of wear and tear on joints,” Dr. Farrar says. “I have real-life examples of people who are running after ACL tears, and while that one leg might have some arthritis because there was trauma, the other leg is perfect.”
When you look at runners, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We’re not elite marathoners logging 100 miles a week, but we also don’t have a significant physical impairment that negatively affects our gait. We maintain a healthy body weight, we’re consistent with our training, and do strength work to support our training. We’re runners who log countless miles every year in everything from 5Ks to marathons, and our bodies are stronger and healthier for it.
“Running doesn’t cause arthritis, but bad running form can cause arthritis,” Dr. Farrar clarifies. “If you’re a heavier person, you’ll need the strength and technique to support the weight. A strength program will reduce that injury risk.”
1. “If you want running to be a lifelong habit, you have to learn how to take care of your body with strength, massage, sleep, and nutrition.”
2. “Start low (in mileage) and go slow (in pace). Begin with a walk/run ratio of 3:1. As time goes on, you can increase the running and decrease the walking until you can jog a mile. A 10 percent per week increase in either duration or miles has a good profile for injury reduction.”
3. “If you’re a masters athlete just starting to run, I definitely recommend either a flexibility or physical therapy routine.”
A good doctor provides advice to improve the health of his patient, but a great doctor goes a step further by practicing what he preaches. Dr. Farrar uses running as a way to keep his blood pressure and weight in check and to reduce daily stress.
“Sometimes, I need time to myself, away from the stress of being a doctor. It’s just me and the pavement, and that escapism is always helpful.”