Surprisingly Small Amounts of Running May Boost Longevity

Jogging once a week may lower mortality risks, a new 14-study analysis reveals.

Posted Nov 10, 2019

You don't have to be an exercise fanatic to reap the life-extending benefits associated with small doses of weekly jogging or running, according to a new 14-study review by researchers in Australia. The findings of this meta-analysis were published on Nov. 4 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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The Australian research team led by Zeljko Pedisic, associate professor of public health at Victoria University's Institute for Health and Sport in Melbourne, found that almost any amount of running during the week was associated with a significantly lower risk of early death.

For their systematic review and meta-analysis, Pedisic and colleagues used big data to analyze the results from fourteen different studies that involved six prospective cohorts and a large pooled sample size of 232,149 participants. Collectively, the health and longevity of almost a quarter-million people were monitored for between 5.5 and 35 years.

After pooling the results from over a dozen different studies, data analysis showed that, overall, any amount of running was associated with a 27 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer for both sexes, compared with no running or jogging.

More specifically, any amount of running/jogging per week was associated with a 30 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 23 percent lower risk of death from cancer.

Of note: This recent systematic review and meta-analysis (2019) is based on observational studies that only identify correlations between running and mortality. Because these findings are not causal, it's impossible to establish if running in-and-of-itself was the only cause for the lower risk of early death observed in those who ran or jogged at least once a week.

Additionally, it still isn't clear to researchers exactly how much someone needs to run every week to optimize the potential life-extending benefits of running or jogging.

Another noteworthy finding from this meta-analysis is that upping the frequency, duration, and pace (i.e., "dose") of weekly running may not reduce all-cause mortality risks significantly more than much smaller doses of running.

Interestingly, when it comes to running and longevity, ultra-marathon training may not be the best Rx. Although more research is needed, the findings from this meta-analysis suggest that more running is not necessarily "better" based on longevity statistics.

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Anecdotally, as a former extreme-distance runner, I'm well aware that my passion for ultra-marathon running bordered on fanaticism; I pushed my body to the verge of self-destruction. Yes, running six back-to-back marathons on a treadmill in 24 hours earned me a Guinness World Record, but it also landed me in the ICU for a week and practically destroyed my kidneys. I retired from ultra-marathon competitions when it became clear that too much running was bad for me.

As an older adult in my mid-50s, I can corroborate that the dose of weekly running that "feels right" (and fits my hectic schedule) reflects the findings of this recent 14-study (Pedisic et al., 2019) systematic review.

These days, if I manage to squeeze in 45-60 minutes of jogging at a "conversational pace" and complement this moderate-intensity constant training (MICT) with a couple of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts—my body, brain, and thinking processes seem to benefit the most.

"Increased rates of participation in running, regardless of its dose, would probably lead to substantial improvements in population health and longevity. Any amount of running, even just once a week, is better than no running. But higher doses of running may not necessarily be associated with greater mortality benefits," the authors write in their paper's conclusion.

Being overscheduled and not having enough hours in the day to squeeze in a sweaty workout are two common reasons many people fail to achieve the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

Hopefully, if you're someone who previously believed that squeezing in a quick workout wasn't worth the effort, this new research will inspire you to incorporate any amount of running into your weekly routine. As the authors sum up: "Running for 25 minutes less than the recommended weekly duration of vigorous physical activity could reduce the risk of death."

Two Main Takeaways:

  1. Surprisingly small amounts of running—which require a minimal time commitment and can easily fit between the blocks in anyone's jam-packed calendar—may increase overall well-being and boost longevity.
  2. When it comes to running, more isn't necessarily better.

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Zeljko Pedisic, Nipun Shrestha, Stephanie Kovalchik, Emmanuel Stamatakis, Nucharapon Liangruenrom, Jozo Grgic, Sylvia Titze, Stuart J.H. Biddle, Adrian E. Bauman, Pekka Oja. "Is Running Associated with a Lower Risk of All-Cause, Cardiovascular and Cancer Mortality, and Is the More the Better? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis." British Journal of Sports Medicine (First published: November 4, 2019) DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-100493