6 Running Benefits for Seniors That’ll Convince You to Lace Up Today
Research and experts explain all the advantages you gain from going for a run, including the physical and mental.
Despite what you may have been told, running has no cut-off age. You don’t have to slow down once you hit a particular milestone or switch to low-impact exercise. Running isn’t too hard on an older body, and, no, it won’t wreck your knees.
In fact, the list of running benefits for seniors spans the physical, mental, and social. To highlight some of the most compelling reasons for running well into your golden years, we asked coaches, trainers, and healthcare professionals who work with an older population for their takes. Read on to learn why some of your best miles may be ahead of you.
1. Supports Heart Health
As you age, your risk for cardiovascular disease increases as performance and health-related factors like cardiac output (or the volume of blood your heart pumps per minute), maximal oxygen uptake (a.k.a. VO2 max), and maximum heart rate wane. But research shows that exercise can help decrease your risk of heart disease—and the more active you are, the lower your risk.
“Running won’t stop the decline, and it isn’t for everyone. But done correctly and safely by engaging in a program designed specifically for seniors, it provides a way to slow and mitigate these inevitable declines,” Hiroyuki “Mike” McKnight, coach and founder of Running Workx, a program that specializes in training older adults, tells Runner’s World. “Running consistently over time with higher endurance levels makes the heart stronger and more efficient, especially for those who have been living more sedentary lifestyles during their older adult years.”
Because it’s an aerobic activity, running can improve the heart’s stroke volume (or the amount of blood pumped out of the heart with each contraction), encourage the formation of new blood vessels, and increase the number and size of mitochondria or the “powerhouse” of the cells that help you produce energy.
2. Improves Breathing Function
Lung function, which basically means how well a person breathes, peaks in your 20s and starts to decline around age 35. Combined with age-related sarcopenia (muscle loss and atrophy) of the breathing muscles, namely the diaphragm, can make breathing more difficult and render you more susceptible to respiratory infections, like the flu and pneumonia.
Research shows that moderate to high-intensity exercise, like running, may improve pulmonary function in seniors. A randomized clinical trial involving 45 people, published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, found that participants over 75 who engaged in moderate aerobic activity showed improved forced vital capacity (FVC, a marker of pulmonary health) after a 10-week exercise program. Seniors who performed high-intensity exercise for the same period of time showed improved FVC and forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1.0, an additional pulmonary health marker). Meanwhile, the sedentary control group showed no improvements.
3. Increases Bone Density
When it comes to bone density, running is a bit of a double-edged sword. Robert Linkul, C.S.C.S., owner of Training the Older Adult, is quick to point out that the high-impact nature of running may not be advisable for deconditioned seniors with bone density issues. Doing too much too soon could lead to shin splints and other micro-fractures, he warns.
That said, an appropriately progressive training plan that slowly ramps up to running can help improve conditions like osteopenia and osteoporosis. “Ground impact is beneficial, big time,” he says. “You’re getting anywhere between three to six times your bodyweight with ground impact when you’re leaving the ground when you’re striding on a run.”
Todd Buckingham, Ph.D., professor of movement science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, also lists “bone strengthening” among the biggest benefits to senior runners, as it has real implications for quality of life and long-term health outcomes.
Buckingham notes that falls are among the leading causes of injury and injury death for seniors, and hip fractures are associated with elevated mortality. “Increasing the bone density of the hip can help prevent those fractures from occurring,” he says. “Running also strengthens the muscles of the lower body and helps improve balance, so you’ll be less likely to fall in the first place.”
4. Boosts Mood
A run is the ultimate mood booster, especially for older individuals who may be at greater risk for depression. “It’s hard to quantify, but in my experience on the ground, I see running providing seniors with a positive mechanism to cope with the everyday stresses of life,” McKnight says. “Whether it’s before the day starts or at the end of a tough day, there’s nothing like a good run outside to take one’s mind off things and create an environment to enjoy the moment.”
Running also creates opportunities for social interaction through running groups, clubs, coaching, and running-related events. Seniors who run may find that they have more chances to connect with others and therefore are better able to avoid isolation, which, according to a longitudinal study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, can significantly increase an individual’s risk of dementia.
5. Promotes Self-Efficacy
In her work, Colleen Brough, D.P.T., assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City and director of Columbia RunLab, witnesses firsthand the physiological benefits that running can afford seniors. “We observe improved lipid profiles for those with cardiovascular disease, optimized metabolism—especially helpful for those struggling with obesity—and improved glycemic control in those new runners who have diabetes,” she says.
But what’s perhaps equally impactful is how running can improve older adults’ self-esteem and self-efficacy, or believing in one’s own capabilities. “In a world of unrealistic standards set by choreographed social media images that often disregard those of us post-40, self-efficacy is more important than ever,” Brough explains.
Running allows seniors to challenge themselves, achieve goals, and try again when they miss the mark. “Frankly, even a bad run that’s been completed provides an immediate sense of accomplishment and satisfaction along with a big dose of stress relief,” Mcknight says.
6. Extends Lifespan
Considering running’s myriad physical and mental health benefits for seniors, it’s no surprise that hitting the road (or the tread) may help you live longer and with fewer disabilities.
Case in point: According to a 2023 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study, adults who spend a minimum of 75 minutes a week jogging or running have longer telomeres—which are a part of chromosomes and known to shorten with age—than those who don’t exercise. Telomeres are better predictors of biological age than chronological years, according to the research.
Also, according to the American College of Cardiology, even running one or two times a week, for a total of less than 51 minutes, fewer than six miles, and slower than 6 miles per hour was associated with a lower your risk of dying compared to those who do not run.
That also shows that if you are a lifelong athlete, you don’t have to maintain your pace or distance to benefit from running.
Safety Considerations for Senior Runners
As with runners of any age, seniors new to the sport should (once they get a doctor’s approval) start slow. “I suggest newbie runners initiate their training with a walking protocol, which more easily transitions them to a new running program,” Brough says. “Depending on initial walking tolerance, this might look like five to 10 minutes of sustained, brisk walking three to four times per week for two weeks.” She suggests gradually working up to 20 minutes before incorporating brief running intervals.
If you have the time and resources, it’s worthwhile to work with a run coach. “As little as one or two sessions can be a game-changer for people,” Linkul says. A running professional will not only help you optimize your form for performance and safety, but they can also customize a training plan that aligns with your goals, experience, and fitness level.
Finally, stay on top of your medical appointments and listen to your doctor, as there are some contraindications to running—and not just for seniors. “Definitely don’t run if you recently experienced a myocardial infarction or change in heart medication, have congestive heart failure, unstable angina, uncontrolled hypertension, or uncontrolled glycemic levels,” Brough says.
Individuals with controlled high blood pressure, a history of heart disease, or circulatory problems may benefit from running, she says, but they must be closely monitored by a healthcare professional.
posted Sunday February 11th
by Runner’s World