(NaturalNews) We have already known for some time that exercise, including running, is good for health. But there have always been fears about what running could do to the bones and joints of older persons. Those doubts may well have been put to bed by the findings of a research team from the Stanford University Medical Center in California.
The team recently reported their findings on the health benefits of regular running for elderly runners in the Archives of Internal Medicine. These include a lower risk of premature death from illnesses such as cancer as well as fewer disabilities.
Details of the Study
The study started in 1984 and 538 runners who were in their 50s at its commencement were tracked for over 20 years and their health status was compared with a similar group of non-runners.
The subjects were asked to fill in annual questionnaires on their ability to perform daily chores, such as walking, dressing and grooming, eating, getting up from a chair, gripping objects and other routine physical activities, as well as on their weight and exercise frequency. National death records were also used to track which subjects had passed on, and the reasons for their deaths.
19 years after the start of the study, 34% of the group of non-runners had passed on, while only 15% of the group of runners had died.
The incidence of disability, as expected, increased with age for both groups. However, as compared to the non-runners, the group of runners only experienced the onset of disability much later. "Runners' initial disability was 16 years later than non-runners," said Professor James Fries, lead author of the study and an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford.
"By and large, the runners have stayed healthy," he added.
The runners experienced lower incidence of early deaths from various illnesses, including cancer, infections and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, as well as a slower rate of death from cardiovascular diseases.
In addition, the runners enjoyed a longer span of active life, meaning they were able to carry out their own chores for more years.
Overall, the difference in health between the two groups became more pronounced with time, even as the subjects hit their eighties. This is something which surprised the researchers.
"We did not expect this," said Professor Fries. "The health benefits of exercise are greater than we thought." The widening gap in levels of health between the two groups was likely because of the runners' greater lean body mass and overall healthier lifestyle habits, he added.
How long did they run?
On average, at the start of the study, which was supported by grants from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases as well as the National Institute on Aging, the runners exercised for about four hours each week. By the time the study was 21 years old, this figure had been reduced to just 76 minutes, yet the health benefits were still apparent.
What about injuries?
Another significant discovery was that the group of runners did not seem more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis or require total knee replacements, issues which had been suspected for years.
When this study began way back in 1984, many scientists held the view that vigorous exercise would do more harm than good to older people, especially in the form of bone-related injuries. Professor Fries, however, had hypothesized that regular movement, while it may not be life-extending per se, would prolong the period of time whereby people were able to carry out their own daily chores.
In a companion paper by Professor Fries and his colleagues published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, it was shown that running by older persons did not result in higher rates of osteoarthritis among them. Nor did the runners need more total knee replacements than their non-runner counterparts.
"When we first began, there was skepticism about our ideas," said Professor Fries. "Now, many other findings go in the same direction."
Key takeaway - Older persons need to exercise too
Professor Fries summed up his team's findings very well when he said, "The study has a very pro-exercise message. If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise."
"This research re-confirms the clear benefits of regular exercise for older people. Exercise can help older people to stay mobile and independent, ensure a healthy heart, keep weight and stress levels under control, and promote better sleep", said Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, an organization in the United Kingdom whose mission is to promote the wellbeing of all older people as well as to help make their latter years more fulfilling and enjoyable.
According to Age Concern, older people do not spend enough time exercising. Of those in the U.K. over the age of 75, more than 90% do not even meet international guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 times each week.
"While younger people are barraged with encouragement to lead healthier lifestyles, the health needs of older people are often overlooked," Lishman added.
This is the greatest takeaway from this study, that the elderly are not exercising enough, and need to do so, without over-concern of suffering from bone or joint-related injuries.
What kind of exercise?
And while we have established that it is important for older people to exercise regularly, according to Professor Fries, this is not just restricted to running, and any kind of vigorous exercise will probably do the trick.
"Both common sense and background science support the idea that there is nothing magical about running per se," said Professor Fries. "It is the regular physical vigorous activity that is important."