These are the real benefits of running, according to the science

Three young women enjoying the benefits of running together
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A runner’s body can come in all shapes and sizes, but the benefits of running remain the same for everyone. So, if you’re thinking about kicking your run to the curb side now the weather has turned…. don’t! 

Whether you stick with your outdoor run and yield the extra benefits of training in colder temperatures, or start looking into the best treadmill (opens in new tab) you can buy, studies show that in the long-term, running can improve longevity of life by lowering your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and resting heart rate. But there’s more. For those who really want to deep-dive into the physiological technicalities, here’s why running really is one of the best forms of exercise.

1. It increases your lactate threshold

The term ‘feel the burn’ is generally associated with hard working muscles during a workout. You’ve probably felt it during a particularly gruelling session. Your body breaks down glucose to be used as energy and a by-product of this process is lactic acid (opens in new tab). The harder you work, the more lactate accumulates until eventually you can’t get rid of it quick enough. 

This is known as your lactate threshold and there have been lots of studies - such as this one, published in the Journal of Physiology (opens in new tab) - that show the importance and role of anaerobic threshold in endurance sports. 

“A higher lactate threshold (aka anaerobic threshold) will allow for a faster, more sustainable running pace,” says Jim Pate, Senior Physiologist at Marylebone Health (opens in new tab)

Jim Pate
Jim Pate

Jim Pate is the senior physiologist and lab manager at the Marylebone Health Group. He specializes in cardiopulmonary exercise testing and heads up all of the Marylebone Health Group's exercise physiology services. He also lectures at UCL, as well as carrying out research at the university. Before joining Marylebone, Jim not only worked in the NHS but also spent some time working at Everest Base Camp on the Extreme Everest Expedition, looking at how extreme conditions affect performance, survival and longevity.

“When running at lower intensities, the primary component the body needs and uses to produce the energy is oxygen. This aerobic process is efficient but also relatively complex and can become overloaded or ‘backed up,’ as energy demand rises with exercise intensity. 

“There will be a point where a second energy production system begins to make a contribution and this is the anaerobic system. This system produces energy rapidly without oxygen, but it is also inefficient, burning cellular fuel more quickly and producing the by-products: lactate and lactic acid. 

“From a running performance point of view, the shift to inefficient energy production results in an unsustainable system that will ultimately lead to fatigue. However, a higher lactate threshold is trainable and the best way to improve it is to train at, or around, lactate threshold intensity with working intervals significantly longer than recovery intervals.”

An athlete running up stairs.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

2. It improves your VO₂ max

Put simply, VO₂ max is the maximum (max) rate (V) of oxygen (O₂) your body is able to consume and use during one minute of exercise. A higher VO₂ max means you’re in good shape physically and if you’re looking to improve yours, running can help. 

“It has been shown that running at specific intensities for certain periods of time can actually improve your VO₂ max,” says Jonny Kibble, head of exercise and physical activity at Vitality (opens in new tab)

Johnny Kibble
Johnny Kibble

Johnny Kibble is an experienced health and well-being coach, with a background in sports science. He currently works with Vitality, a UK health insurance company, where he leads physical activity workshops. In his spare time, he competes in 5ks, 10ks, triathlons and half marathons.

“VO₂ max is measured in millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute – ml/kg/min. It is generally considered the gold standard measure of cardiovascular fitness – the higher it is, the longer you can potentially exercise for, at any given intensity. 

“While it can be impacted by numerous genetic factors, such as age and sex (men will generally have a higher VO₂ max than women due to muscle mass and haemoglobin levels), the good news is, everyone can improve theirs. 

“Research from the Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise Journal (opens in new tab) shows that running at 90-95% of maximum heart rate for four minutes followed by four minutes of resting at 70% max heart rate, four times round (for a specific time period) increased participants VO₂ max by an average of 7.2 per cent (2).” 

According to Kibble, on top of improving your running performance, a high VO₂ max could also make everyday tasks easier to perform. 

“Another study in the Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise Journal (opens in new tab) showed that climbing a set of stairs can cost around 33.5ml/kg/min of our VO₂ max, which could be a sedentary individual’s maximal capacity (27 - 40ml/kg/min),” he explains. “By improving this, it means we may find it easier to perform everyday tasks, which is particularly important as we grow older due to our VO₂ max levels declining with age. 

“VO₂ max can also play a huge part in prevention and, according to research from Frontiers in Bioscience (opens in new tab), is the strongest independent predictor of future life expectancy in both healthy and cardio-respiratory diseased individuals.”

3. It boosts bone health

Lacing up and pounding the pavement can often be thought of as detrimental to joints and knees. However, research shows that running can in fact, be good for bone health.

“Running is often perceived as bad for joints, in particular the knees and hips, and too much high impact exercise can damage bone and may cause long-term problems such as stress fractures,” says Lindsy Kass, Principal Lecturer in Sport, Health and Exercise at the University of Hertfordshire (opens in new tab)

Lindsy Kass
Lindsy Kass

Kass is a Principal Lecturer on the BSc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Degree Programme at the University of Hertfordshire. She is a Registered Nutritionist and an Accredited Exercise Physiologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science. Kass has worked at the University of Hertfordshire for over 15 years and is a Fellow of the Teaching and Learning Academy. Her work includes research into carbohydrate and protein sport drinks, looking at the effect of magnesium supplementation on blood pressure and exercise and, most recently, she was the lead investigator on a large study looking at the effect of the Covid lockdown on exercise and eating habits. 

“However, there is much evidence (opens in new tab) to show that impact exercise – such as running – can actually help with bone formation and bone density, and reduce the effect of osteoporosis. In one study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation (opens in new tab), long-distance runners were evaluated to establish change in bone properties using ultrasound and biochemical markers, to determine bone strength and bone formation markers. The male and female runners, aged 30-49 years ran an average of 48.6km per week, with an average frequency of 4.4 times per week. No significant difference was found in bone strength for either the males or females across all age groups meaning there was no decrement in bone strength when running long distances. 

“However, there was a significant improvement in blood serum markers of osteocalcin, which is a marker of bone formation, for both males and females across all age groups. This shows that bone formation may be improved with distance running, by stimulating osteoclasts. This supports the view that bone density is reliant on the forces acting on the bone – in this case, the impact to the legs from running.” 

For those over 50, worried about osteoporosis, don’t even think about switching to a non-resistance training modality. Research in the journal Osteoporosis International (opens in new tab) found that older runners had higher bone mineral density than swimmers of the same age. This suggests that moderate impact activities are better for maintaining skeletal integrity with age.

Image of person running up steps

(Image credit: Getty Images )

4. It improves brain health

Struggling with that afternoon deadline? Can’t make an important life decision? The answer might lie in a quick run. 

“A study by the University of Tsukuba in Japan (opens in new tab) last year showed that ten minutes of moderate-intensity running increases local blood flow to the parts of the brain that plays an important role in controlling mood and executive functions,” says Elisabeth Philipps, a Clinical Neuroscientist and spokesperson for supplement brand FourFive (opens in new tab).

Elisabeth Philipps
Elisabeth Philipps

Elisabeth Philipps is a clinical neuroscientist specializing in the endocannabinoid system. She has authored many articles on CBD, clinical neuroscience and health. One of her main strengths is being able to translate complex and dense scientific research into accessible written and presented content. 

“In such a short time, to see a mental improvement in brain function is really positive and should help spur people to enjoy daily exercise however long they have.” 

In the study, researchers found that just a short session increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex so it could benefit everything from focus, memory, planning, organization, and even impulse decision making. 

So, what does this mean in real life? “Moderate intensity running can be worked out using fancy heart rate monitoring, but more simply you can do the talk test which for moderate intensity means you can comfortably talk whilst running at a pace for 10 minutes,” she adds. 

“This might take a bit of training and working up to this level but even just getting moving and brisk walking, especially with some hills or inclines involved helps into improve brain blood flow and boost your happy hormones, as well as trigger endocannabinoid synthesis which releases bliss molecule anandamide to help you feel good. Running and walking outdoors is best - fresh air and nature really boosts mental health. In fact, the ‘runner's high’ is not an endorphins release, as previously thought but the body releasing anandamide, an endocannabinoid produced in the body, which makes us feel great.”

Vicki-Marie Cossar is a Surrey-based freelance journalist who has more than 20 years experience writing across the topics of health, fitness, fashion, beauty and wellbeing. Her content includes investigative news stories, feel-good features and trend reports/predictions. She was formerly responsible for the Life & Style section of Metro newspaper’s features department (now called Trends) and currently writes the paper's weekly Wellbeing supplement.

 

Vicki-Marie juggles her passion for writing around after her 4-year-old twin girls and in her (very limited) downtime, she finds headspace walking her chocolate Labrador or running/strength training in her home gym.