Reagan Run 5K: Joints, lower back health helped by running

Andy Colbert competes in the Reagan Run Saturday, July 2, 2022 in Dixon. Colbert finished 42 overall.

One of the first questions I’m asked when people find out I’m a runner is, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to ruin your knees?”

I’ve been running for 35 years, and my knees, joints, and bones are just fine.

In fact, scientific research has shown that running strengthens joints, muscles and connective tissue around said joints. Research shows as well that running improves bones density as we get older.

In a study of 44 first-time marathon runners (17 men and 27 women), researchers noted that post-marathon, “The knees of novice runners achieved sustained improvement, for at least 6 months post-marathon, in the condition of their marrow and articular cartilage.”

Same goes for the lower back. In a 2020 report titled “Long-term running in middle-aged men and intervertebral disc health, a cross-sectional pilot study,” investigators looked at disc spacing in veteran runners vs. non-runners. The finding: “Middle-aged long-term endurance runners exhibit less age-related decline in their lumbar IVDs [intervertebral disc height].” And the more years subjects had been running, the better their disc-spacing looked. Likewise for weekly mileage; more running was better.

Running adds years to your life – and life to your years. Studies have shown that running increases lifespan and has led to the observation, “If exercise were a pill, it would be the most popular pill in the world.”

A 2018 study on running and longevity found that runners have a 25-30% lower rate of all-cause mortality on follow-up than non-runners. It concluded: “Any amount of running, even once a week, is better than no running.”

It’s not about simply living longer; rather, we hope for a long, healthy, productive life. This is where running and a high level of fitness shine. The older generations consume a high percent of the public health budget with age-related illnesses. A lot of research has gone into what can be done to keep them healthy longer. More exercise almost always wins this race.

For example, recent research at Ball State University found that a group of 75-year-old lifetime runners and bicyclists (who had been exercising for 50 years) had biological profiles closer to 25-year-old graduate students than their non-exercising 75-year-old peers.

Running helps us sleep better, as well. According to experts from Johns Hopkins, “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” An article in the American Journal of Lifestyle Exercise notes that the exercise-sleep connection goes both ways. The more you exercise, the more you need quality sleep. Also, the worse your sleep habits, the less likely you are to exercise regularly.

One of the newest and most unexpected benefits of running is improved cognitive function and reduction of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Running raises heart rate and blood flow. That includes oxygen-rich blood being pushed to the brain. It’s hard to imagine this wouldn’t be a very good thing.

It’s possible, as one study revealed, that running improves brain health by stimulating the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein encourages the growth and survival of neurons in the brain. Another study showed that high fitness improves total brain volume, including gray matter. Even if you don’t begin running until mid-life or later, you gain protection from the kinds of brain plaques linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

One of the most important benefits of running for me is that it improves mental health and reduces depression. While many runners start running to improve their physical fitness, after a short time they realize it makes them feel better. It improves their mood, mental energy and emotions, and they tend to have fewer down days.

A chapter in the 2019 handbook Sport and Exercise Phycology for the American Psychological Association states: “There is substantial evidence supporting exercise use in the treatment of mental disorders, especially depression.”

One thing I always tell people: “Running is not easy, and it never gets easier,” but it is measurable; we count the miles and the minutes, we can see where we were and how far we’ve come.

Effort produces results, no effort produces nothing – and in my humble opinion, the effort is worth it.

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