Over 50 million Americans run regularly, but is running good for you? It may seem like there's an obvious answer, given how popular it is, and the common perception that it can benefit your fitness levels and make you feel good. As with almost every form of exercise, however, running isn't for everyone and - if certain aspects of running are not properly observed - it can be less beneficial for certain people.
There are also different types of running, and these have differing benefits to your health, your weight, and your muscles. The benefits of sprinting and intervals, for example, are very different to those you get from long-distance running, outdoor trail running, or jumping on one of the best treadmills (opens in new tab) for some steady state cardio.
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According to the WHO, it's recommended that you should get between 150-300 minutes (opens in new tab) of exercise per week. Running is one of the easiest ways to do this, with the best running watches (opens in new tab) offering an accurate way to track your activity levels. It's generally good for you too, though there are caveats to this theme. We've detailed everything you need to know below, whether you're running for fitness, to lose weight, or just as a personal challenge.
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What does running do to your body and mind?
Running regularly can have a wide range of benefits for your body. According to experts at Public Health England (opens in new tab), running, along with most forms of exercise, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues, type two diabetes, cancer, and other physical ailments. The CDC (opens in new tab) also adds that running as part of your daily routine can also help build stronger bones and muscles while managing your weight and improving sleep.
These benefits can significantly improve your overall quality of life as well as your self-confidence. However, it is vital to remember that running could cause injury, especially if you overdo it.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy (opens in new tab), found that when 202 runners were assessed over one year, “Novice runners who progressed their running distance by more than 30% over a 2-week period seem to be more vulnerable to distance-related injuries than runners who increase their running distance by less than 10%.”
In other words, pushing yourself too hard is more likely to cause injuries. Common injuries that runners experience include (opens in new tab):
- Plantar fasciitis: a pain in the bottom of your foot or in your heel area
- Achilles tendinitis: The inflammation of a tendon in the calf caused by overuse
- Runner’s knee: Pain around the kneecap or general knee area, also known as Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
- ITB syndrome: Short for iliotibial band syndrome, this is an injury to your IT band, which extends down the length of your outer thigh
- Shin splints: a type of shin pain, usually improved with rest, ice, and gentle exercise
- Stress fractures: A small crack in a bone caused by repeated stress over time. May present as bruising
Injuries like the ones above are normally treatable with ice, medication, and plenty of rest. However, we recommend consulting a doctor if you experience ongoing issues. To avoid injuries like these, it is important to wear proper footwear, stretch carefully, build your endurance gradually, and listen to what your body needs.
So, running can be good for you provided that you take care of yourself while you train.
The mental impact of running
In terms of the mental impact of running, it is possible that training can improve your mental health and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. As exercise raises your endorphin levels (opens in new tab), it stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is connected to your mood. This stimulation can help relieve the effects of mild depression and anxiety. A 2020 study (opens in new tab) regarding running and mental health concluded that “running has important positive implications for mental health, particularly depression and anxiety disorders.” In other words, it is well-documented by professionals that running, and exercise in general, can positively impact your mental health.
While the benefits for some people are clear, motivation techniques and professional help may need to be utilized as well. As one study from 2012 (opens in new tab) put it, "A challenge of the study lies in the motivational techniques needed to exercise with depressed patients, which is proven to be difficult and it will take a serious effort not to exceed the calculated 30% drop-out patients in the intervention group." It can be hard to motivate yourself to work out when going through a depressive or anxious period. Talking to a medical professional can help you start on a journey to manage your mental well-being.
We discuss the mental health benefits to exercise overall in a separate investigation.
What are the benefits of running?
If you are thinking about dusting off your running gear, there are plenty of benefits to making running a regular part of your routine. According to experts (opens in new tab) at Sports Medicine Australia, some of the benefits include:
- Building strong bones
- Strengthened muscles
- Improved cardiovascular fitness
- Effective weight loss or management
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Lower stress levels
- Improved sleep
Running is not only excellent for its benefits - but it is also relatively easy to get into, and often free. It’s an activity that does not necessarily demand a heavy time or financial investment to fit into your life. Running can be done almost anywhere and does not have a steep learning curve. If you’re struggling to get started, try adding another walk into your routine each day, consulting a personal trainer, or teaming up with a running buddy.
Running and arthritis
There's often a concern that running, while generally good for you, can exacerbate medical conditions, like arthritis. Some even believe that running can result in arthritis, which could be a concern for anyone already worried about joint pain. However, according to Dr. Lewis Maharam, fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, this isn't the case with sensible and consistent running.
"That's an old wives tale. Your parents decide if you're going to have arthritis or not you'll have arthritis — it's genetic. Jogging, or running, itself will not cause the arthritis."
However, he goes on to clarify that "if you already have arthritis, and you have bone and bone contact, and no cartilage in your knee, running will make it worse."
For older people, Dr Maharam actually thinks there are benefits when it comes to arthritis, by saying: "In fact, running helps future arthritic patients actually be more active in their later years. The compressive motion, helps bring more fluid in your knees and keeps them moving." This is backed up by a study done several years ago by the University of Pittsburgh, which linked the speed at which you walk to an overall trend of life expectancy.
Other experts believe that knee problems are possible from prolonged periods of running. We spoke to Dr. Stephen G. Rice, Director of Sports Medicine at Jersey Shore University Medical Center about knees specifically.
"The C-shaped meniscal cartilage in the knee is more spongy — like your nose or ear," he explains. "It helps stabilize the thigh bone on top of the shin bone, and provides cushioning as we run, jump or walk. But over time, the meniscal cartilage can wear down and lose its sponginess, and thus not absorb as much shock. The bones then pound on each other harder, and from that friction, arthritis develops and worsens."
Wait? Is he contradicting Dr Maharam? Well, not quite. Dr Rice continues to say that "So, yes you can begin to develop arthritis from the pounding from running. However, the person who is active and fit and moving around is doing the most active defense against arthritis. There's a happy medium between whether you run smart, slowly building up your endurance, and stay active, and if you put extra force on your knees."
It's about running smart, not hard, then. Plus, running is more likely to worsen conditions, rather than cause them to easily develop. All the people we spoke to for this article agreed that if you get pain in your knees when you run, then you need to seek the advice of a medical professional before you continue running regularly.
- Read more: How to exercise without hurting your knees