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Running slows effects of ageing

15th September 2009

By Deborah Condon

Running regularly may slow down the effects of ageing, the results of a new study indicate.

A team of US researchers followed the progress of over 500 older runners for more than 20 years. They found that those who ran regularly had fewer disabilities and a longer span of active life. They were also less likely to die early compared to their non-running peers.

According to lead researcher, Prof James Fries of Stanford University in California, when he and his team began the research in 1984, many scientists held the view that vigorous exercise would do more harm than good to older people.

Some believed that the long-term effects of jogging among older people would include increased orthopaedic injuries. However Prof Fries believed that regular exercise would extend high quality, low disability life. He speculated that exercise would not necessarily extend longevity, but it would shorten the period at the end of life when people could not carry out daily tasks on their own.

The team began tracking 538 runners over the age of 50, comparing them to a similarly aged group of non-runners. The participants, who are now in their 70s and 80s, filled in questionnaires every year about their ability to perform everyday activities such as walking, dressing, getting out a chair and gripping objects.

Nineteen years into the study, 34% of the non-runners had died, compared to 15% of the runners.

At the beginning of the study, the runners ran an average of fours hours per week. After 21 years, this figure had fallen to an average of 76 minutes per week. However they were still experiencing the health benefits associated with running.

The study found that on average, people in both groups became more disabled after 21 years of ageing, but for the runners, the onset of disability started later.

"Runners’ initial disability was 16 years later than non-runners. By and large, the runners have stayed healthy," Prof Fries explained.

The study also found that the gap between the runners’ and non-runners’ abilities increased with time.

"We did not expect this. The health benefits of exercise are greater than we thought," Prof Fries said.

He expressed his surprise that the gap between runners and non-runners continued to widen, even as they entered their ninth decade of life. He said that the effect was probably due to the runners’ lean body mass and healthier habits in general.

Prof Fries added that this effect cannot go on forever, but so far, the effect of running on delaying death has been more dramatic than the researches expected. While running has, not surprisingly, been linked to fewer heart-related deaths, it has also been linked to fewer early deaths from cancer, neurological disease, infections and other causes.

Furthermore, the fears other scientists had about injuries have proven unfounded. Prof Fries pointed out that running is not associated with greater rates of osteoarthritis in older runners. Furthermore, runners do not require more total knee replacements than non-runners.

Details of these findings are published in the journal, Archives of Internal Medicine.


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