By now, everyone knows there are numerous benefits of exercise, and one of those benefits includes the potential to extend life. So, what is the one specific exercise that helps you live longer? According to recent research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, running may extend your life up to three years. (1, 2)
That’s right — running is a life extender, even if you run as little as five minutes per day. Even more remarkable, subjects in the study who ran lived about three years longer than non-runners, even if they were overweight, drank, smoked, or run slowly or sporadically. (3) How can this be so? Good question.
Running: Exercise that Helps You Live Longer
So what, exactly, did the researchers find in reviewing this study? According to Dr. Duck-chul Lee, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, and his study co-authors, running dropped the risk for premature death by nearly 40 percent — even when controlling for a history of health issues like obesity or hypertension, smoking and drinking.
Extrapolating that data, the researchers concluded that if the non-runners in the study began running, there’d be 16 percent fewer deaths and 25 percent fewer fatal heart attacks.
You might be wondering, in order to make running an exercise that helps you live longer, how many miles a week should I run? That’s the fascinating part: (4)
Perhaps most interesting, the researchers calculated that, hour for hour, running statistically returns more time to people’s lives than it consumes. Figuring two hours per week of training, since that was the average reported by runners in the Cooper Institute study, the researchers estimated that a typical runner would spend less than six months actually running over the course of almost 40 years, but could expect an increase in life expectancy of 3.2 years, for a net gain of about 2.8 years.
As little as five minutes a day has benefits on longevity, with the life-extending powers plateauing at about four hours of running per week. However, running more than four hours a week did not show any adverse effects, just a plateau, meaning there is no harm in running long so long as you give yourself enough recovery time and rest between workouts.
The reasons behind these findings are still unclear, and this does not mean that running necessarily causes longevity to increase. It’s more likely, according to Lee, that because running combats so many health issues — such as high blood pressure and excess weight — it helps overall health, which in turn boosts longevity.
In fact, running isn’t the only exercise that helps you live longer. Walking, cycling and other exercise have also been shown to drop mortality risk by about 12 percent. It’s just that running seems to be the most effective exercise that helps you live longer.
Running and Telomeres
Beyond just combating high blood pressure, obesity, coronary heart disease and more, running seems to lengthen telomeres, segments of DNA at the end of our chromosomes that control aging.
One of the largest studies to date on telomeres shed some light on telomeres’ effect on a person’s health. Researchers collected saliva samples and medical records of more than 100,000 participants. Their findings showed that shorter-than-average telomere length was associated with a boost in mortality risk — even after adjusting for lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol consumption and education that are linked to telomere length. (6)
The study found that individuals with the shortest telomeres, or about 10 percent of the study’s participants, were 23 percent more likely to die within three years than those with longer telomeres. While science still isn’t 100 percent sure how telomere length affects how we age, it’s clear that the longer our telomeres are, the better. As luck would have it, it turns out running helps extend telomeres.
Research published in the New York Times about how exercise keeps your cells young found that middle-aged adults who were intense runners (45–50 miles a week) had telomere lengths that were, on average, 75 percent longer than their sedentary counterparts. (7)