From boosting cardio fitness to making new friends, here’s what running can do for you.
By Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes
We all know that regular exercise has the power to transform our bodies and minds, and the benefits of running are certainly no exception. Not only does running improve the way we look and feel, but it reduces the risk of long-term illnesses and even lengthens lifespan.
It’s also ideal for beginners. There’s no membership free or set location – one of the biggest benefits of running is that it’s totally free and can be done anywhere at any time – but also has a far-reaching community that includes athletes of all abilities.
No matter whether you’re yet to run your first 5k or prepping for your fifth marathon, the various benefits of running are accessible for everyone. Strength and conditioning coach, sport scientist, and gait analyst Emma Kirk Odunubi explains how and why to get started:
From cardio fitness to community focus, we run through 17 of the best benefits of running:
- Improves fitness
One of the most obvious benefits of running is its effect on cardiovascular fitness. When you run, your muscles need more oxygen than usual, prompting your heart to pump more oxygen-rich blood to them by beating faster and harder. Your heart adapts and strengthens over time and becomes more efficient at doing this, which makes running easier (and allows you to run longer and further).
- Makes you stronger
Steady-state running builds strength in the slow-twitch muscles in your legs, while sprinting develops the fast-twitch fibres.
Your body has two types of skeletal muscle fibres: slow-twitch, which support long distance endurance activities, and fast-twitch muscle fibres, which are used for quick, rapid movements. Steady-state running builds strength in the slow-twitch muscles in your legs, while sprinting develops the fast-twitch fibres.
- Builds stamina and endurance
Running increases the capacity of your heart, lungs, and muscles, so you can sustain your efforts for longer. Stamina usually refers to improving the strength and function of your heart and lungs, while endurance typically concerns your ability to use your muscles continuously over time. In building stamina and endurance, you’ll endure the discomfort of exercising for longer, while at the same time reducing feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. ‘Take it easy, start with run walks,’ suggests Kirk Odunubi. ‘I suggest one minute run, one minute walk, repeated for, say, 10 mins. Then slowly but surely build on your timings week on week. Then increase your run to rest ratio.’
- Assists weight loss goals
Losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you consume, which is where exercise comes in. The number of calories burned varies greatly depending on your body weight, the speed at which you’re running, and the intensity of the run. A heavier person will burn more calories than someone who weighs less, even where both are running at the same pace and for the same length of time. Additionally, high-intensity running like sprints, intervals and hill runs continues to burn calories long after the workout has ended.
- Lowers blood pressure
Like other forms of physical activity, running makes your heart stronger, so it pumps more blood to your muscles with less effort. This also has a beneficial effect on your blood pressure. A review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that exercise produces similar results to medicines for people with high blood pressure. However, you should never stop taking prescribed medicine without consulting your doctor.
- Build strong bones
Just one or two minutes of running each day is linked to better bone health, scientists from the University of Exeter and the University of Leicester found when analysing data on more than 2,500 women. They found four per cent better bone health among women who did one to two minutes of high intensity weight-bearing exercise daily, and six per cent better bone health among those who did more than two minutes a day.
- Relieves stress
Exercise is known to reduce your body’s levels of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and running is no different. Running increases the amount of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress. The effects can be felt on a longer-term basis, too. Running mitigates the negative impact that chronic stress has on brain, according to a rodent study by Brigham Young University.
- Boosts your mood
Regular running makes you happier, more positive and more self-confident, according to a study spanning 8,000 runners by Glasgow Caledonian University. Running also stimulates the release of endorphins – the brain chemicals that function as painkillers and mood-boosters and characterise the sought-after ‘runner’s high’. This phenomenon is also caused by dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for motivation, according to rodent research by the University of Montreal.
- Fosters community
If you buddy up with a friend, running can be a great way to meet up and hang out, with the added benefit that you’ll keep each other motivated. Alternatively, it can be a great way to make new friends, ‘online through UKRunChat on Twitter, on running communities on Instagram and Facebook, as well as in person,’ says Kirk Odunubi.
- Helps you live longer
Any amount of running is associated with a 27 per cent lower risk of death from all causes, analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded. The studies, which spanned 232,149 people, revealed that runners had a 30 per cent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 23 per cent lower risk of death from cancer. While the results are purely observational, they do suggest that any amount of running is better than none at all.
- Explore new places
Whether you’re lacing up for a morning jog around a new city, or tackling a trail run through idyllic countryside, running is one of the best ways to explore the world. ‘It’s accessible,’ says Kirk Odunubi. ‘Shoes on and you can run out the door.’ Switching up the scenery keeps things interesting, too.
- Can set clear targets
Unlike other forms of exercise, it’s easy to set (and hopefully achieve) specific running goals. For beginners, there’s the trill of securing your first 5k, 10k, half marathon or marathon, while experienced runners can work towards beating their personal bests. ‘Don’t worry about how fast others are, or anything like that,’ says Kirk Odunubi. ‘Enjoy the progress and know that to progress we sometimes have to regress.’
- Costs little to start
Running is one of the most wallet-friendly workouts going. You can invest in the latest wearable tech and compression tights if you feel so inclined, but it’s certainly not an essential. All you really need when you’re starting out is a decent pair of trainers. ‘Get your running shoes fitted via a gait analysis,’ suggests Kirk Odunubi. ‘Having your footwear fitted by an independent running shop will help to negate the likelihood of injury. At many stores it’s free with the shoe purchase.’ Plus, she adds, it’ll take the stress out of searching for the right shoe.
- Boosts immunity
Regular exercise boosts your immune system by increasing the number of disease-fighting white blood cells and antibodies in your body, reducing your levels of stress hormones – known to dampen immune function – and boosting your breathing rate, which pushes pathogens out of your lungs and airways.
Aerobic exercise, such as running, improves your immune response better than resistance exercise.
The increase in body temperature may also help to kill off harmful bacteria and viruses. Aerobic exercise, such as running, improves the immune response better than resistance exercise, a study published in the European Journal of Haematology found.
- Improves cognition
Running boosts the flow of oxygen-rich blood everywhere in the body, including the brain, helping to improve cognitive performance. Regular aerobic exercise also increases the size of your hippocampus – the area of your brain responsible for memory and learning – according to a study by the University of British Columbia. Plus, it promotes brain health by stimulating the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), according to meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.
- Sleep better
People sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, according to a study by Oregon State University. And contrary to popular belief, an evening workout won’t ruin your kip. Research published in Experimental Physiology found that performing 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise in the early evening doesn’t negatively affect sleep, and may even reduce hunger.
- Supports knee joints
As a high-impact exercise, many people believe running is bad for their joints. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Pro-inflammatory molecules actually go down in the knee joint after running, according to research from Brigham Young University. ‘For young, healthy individuals, exercise creates an anti-inflammatory environment that may be beneficial in terms of long-term joint health,’ said study lead author Robert Hyldahl, BYU assistant professor of exercise science.