Is Running Healthy? Here’s What the Science Says

If you are a runner, you are familiar with the claim that running inevitably ruins your knees. We all have that well-meaning acquaintance who looks after us by reminding us of how hazardous an activity running is. Again and again.

“Is running healthy?” is a question that requires, and deserves a more thorough investigation. Instead of relying on unfounded myths and hearsay, we must dive into the world of science to uncover a proper answer. 

According to scientific studies, does running change our bodies, and how? 

Does it promote increased physical and mental well-being?

Is running healthy?

Runners tend to get injured, but is running healthy?
Runners tend to get injured. But is running healthy? Photo by nprpdx.

The Numerous Health Benefits of Running

In addition to stronger knees, running provides a multitude of health benefits. All of these benefits are substantial in sum and can help improve the quality of your life.

Running Improves Cardiovascular Health

When you run at an easy to moderate pace, you are exercising at the aerobic range of the intensity scale. Aerobic activity generally leads to a stronger and healthier heart.

A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology back in 2014 reveals all you need to know in the title: Leisure-Time Running Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk. The authors conclude that as little as 5-10 minutes of running per day, at slow speeds, significantly reduces the risk of death. Not just from cardiovascular disease, but all causes.

Runners Live Longer

Another review of evidence published in 2017 came to the same conclusion, as reported by The Guardian. On average, runners live three years longer than people who don’t run. According to the authors of the review, no other form of exercise has a similar impact on your life expectancy.

Running can even mitigate the negative impact of your vices. Smokers, drinkers and overweight people can all enjoy the positive effects of running, despite their bad habits. 

Running Helps You Relax, Sleep and Recover

One animal study, published in 2017 1Wheel Running Improves REM Sleep and Attenuates Stress-induced Flattening of Diurnal Rhythms in F344 Rats, found that running lead to improved sleep quality. The subjects spent more time in the restorative sleep phases and were less vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress on sleep.

David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, explains that endocannabinoids contribute to the post-run calmness. Speaking to Hopkins Medicine’s health magazine, he explains that these chemicals promote effects such as feelings of calm and reduced anxiety.

The takeaway is that running facilitates better sleep, improved recovery and resilience to stress. This effect is not limited to strictly physical stressors but includes all forms of stress exposure and mentally aversive experiences.

Running Upgrades Your Brain

Continuing to extol the virtues of running, professor Linden says that running can, quite literally, change your brain. The brain changelog after applying the regular exercise upgrade includes extra resilience against both mental and physicals stress, as well as an overall increase in cognitive capacity.

What happens is that cardiovascular exercise like running sparks growth of blood vessels, as we learned when examining the benefits of aerobic running. These new blood vessels increase the amount of nourishment the body can provide for the brain. 

That’s not the only change that takes place in your brain, however. Regular running can also prompt a process called neurogenesis, which is the production of new cells.

But Does Running Ruin Your Knees?

Let’s end by looking at this particular popular claim among non-runners. As someone who struggles with patellofemoral pain syndrome, aka “runner’s knee,” you might expect me to answer with a resounding yes. However, we are here to look at this from a scientific perspective. Leaping to an answer based on a single, anecdotal experience is the opposite of a scientific approach.

When it comes to PFPS in particular, yes, runners are particularly exposed to this condition. To the extent that people often refer to it as “runner’s knee“. However, most people affected by this condition will recover with a little rest, and then slowly resuming training. 2If you are one of the unlucky few, I recommend this book-length article from Painscience on the topic. The text is informative and well-researched. It will help you brush away bullshit treatment and ineffective or even detrimental approaches, and help you determine the next step on your way to recovery.

As it turns out, the most effective treatment for runner’s knee is exercise. Strength and condition work targeting the quadriceps, hamstrings and hips is effective, according to a 2014 study by Kooiker et al. 3Effects of physical therapist-guided quadriceps-strengthening exercises for the treatment of patellofemoral pain syndrome: a systematic review. But, surprisingly, a study by Van Gent et al. from 2007 revealed that increasing training distance per week was a protective factor against knee injuries. The authors write:

“The relation between distance & injury may not be simple & there may be a fine balance between overuse & underconditioning among long distance runners.”

Van Gent et al.

What’s more, a review of studies investigating the relationship between exercise and joint health drew encouraging conclusions. The researchers found strong evidence for an inverse relationship between physical activity and cartilage defects. The authors remark that further research is needed, but conclude based on the existing evidence:

“Physical activity is not detrimental to the knee joint but is actually beneficial to joint health.”

Urquhart et al.

Myth busted.

Running Is Good for You

As the studies cited here have proven, running is beneficial for your health. It extends your life expectancy, and it makes you less likely to contract a variety of afflictions that a large group of people come down with every single day.

But there is a flip side to this investigation—the health benefits of running start to decline at a certain level of running. Run too much, too often, and you expose yourself to other risk factors that can lead to a decline in overall health.

But how much is too much? There have been many studies investigating that particular question over the past few years. And we will look at them and their findings in-depth in a future article. Sign up to our weekly newsletter below to make sure you don’t miss out.

Like this article?

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Sprint Edition, to receive the latest content from Run161 in your inbox every Monday morning.

Newsletter Sign-Up