I was raised around running. My dad was a runner his whole life; in high school, he held the school’s record for the 400 meter sprint. (A record which, as he always admits he broke at the last meet of his senior year, only to have it broken by someone else at the first meet the next year.) When I was a younger, my dad would frequently compete in various races and track meets all over the local area, and when I was in seventh grade, I began running with him–or should I say running behind him. That fall I enrolled in Cross Country and that spring I did track, two sports I participated in every year from then until I graduated.
During that time, I had heard about the many health benefits of running, although that was not something that I paid attention to. I was into running because it was fun, not because it made me healthy benefits. That’s not something that had occurred to me as a twelve year old. But now, as a 19 year old, I have started to pay attention to the health aspects. Many are rather immediate, such as improved cardiovascular health, stronger joints, and the burning of calories. These benefits are the reason many people continue to run for many years.
According to a recent study, however, the effects of running could be much more long-term than just burning some of your daily caloric intake. Apparently, running could actually help you live longer than non-runners.
The study, published by Stanford’s medical school is a longitudinal study, as it studied the same participants for 20 years. The participants were chosen from a group of people 50 years or older, back in 1984. There were two major groups of people, the first was runners, of which there were 538. The second group was made up of non-runners, and was approximately the same size.
The study was started in response to the popular scientific opinion at the time that supposed that intense exercise like running held a negative effect for older people. This belief most likely arose from the fear that it would cause more older people to break some of their bones, now feeble with age. The researchers disagreed with this supposition, believing that running could make basic tasks, such as walking, easier to accomplish even with the difficulties of aging.
With that in mind, the alternative hypothesis was that running would help slow the effects of aging, while the null hypothesis was that running expedited them.
So, in order to set up the study, participants were asked to answer a yearly questionnaire, about how well they were able to perform these basic tasks. By 2008, when the study was published, only 16% of the runners had kicked the bucket, while 34% of the non-runners had gone the same way. The group was significantly less able to perform the basic tasks at this point, but the runners became that way on average 16 years after the non-runners.It is important to note though, that the runners began the study completing on average 240 minutes a week, compared to only 76 minutes in 2008. The researchers involved in the study believe the mechanism for these results lies in the runner’s more slender body-types, as well as their commitment to health.
In this case, the alternative hypothesis is to be accepted, as it seems clear that not only were the runners having an easier time participating in basic everyday activities, but they were also living longer lives. Back in 1984, this would have been considered an unusual result. The study typifies science’s anti-authoritarian nature, and how our knowledge is constantly changing. As far as I could find, however, there are not many other studies of this nature that have been done, an occurrence that could be explained by the file drawer problem. The court of opinion about elderly runners could have been so strong that studies looking to disagree with it may have not been published or even attempted.
The study isn’t perfect of course. 538 people is a relatively small sample size for each group, although perhaps any more might be difficult to keep track of over such a long time. Additonally, the results of the study could be due to chance, although from the data it seems relatively unlikely. The results could also be due to confounding variables, such as genetic predispositions to cancer and other illnesses that could have caused participants to die, partially skewing the statistics. It’s definitely a study that could benefit from meta-analyses, or even similar studies of the kind, to see if they could replicate similar results.
At least for now though, it would seem that running in the autumn of one’s life is advisable. It could make life easier down the road. Just being able to put clothes on and walk upstairs to the bedroom increases one’s quality of life as an older person. Most people say that being old is not that great, but if running is a part of their life, it need not be so bad.