5 Surprising Benefits of Running, According to Research
Sport & Activity
Running can support your physical and mental health—from your brain to your gut.
When it comes to running, the list of benefits just keeps growing, from improved cardiovascular function to reduced belly fat to better mood. Plus, since all you need are the right shoes and a safe place to run, it's an activity that's affordable and accessible to most people.
What you might not expect, though, is that running can affect your life in surprising ways—lasting hours or days after your last run. Here's what recent research and experts say about how a run now can lead to big benefits later.
"The fact is that, by the time you see one benefit to more activity like running, there are many others you might not be noticing", said Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. "There's a ripple effect that can be profound in terms of your health, and it doesn't take much to start feeling better from it".
Why is running good for you?
1.It may help you live longer.
As far as longevity goes, running could be the ticket to tacking on a few extra years. A 2017 study in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease found that, in general, runners have a reduced risk of premature mortality and tend to live at least three years longer than non-runners.
This is likely tied to how many chronic disease risks runners knock down, including heart failure, diabetes and some cancers. And it doesn't take much: a 2020 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that running even once a week led to substantial improvement in longevity.
"The good news here is that you can see health advantages at any age when it comes to improving lifespan through an exercise like running", Anand said. "If you want a way to stay healthy and live longer, start moving".
2.Running supports joint health (yes, even in your knees).
There's a prevailing belief that you can't have healthy knees and be a runner. Research has increasingly debunked this myth.
For example, a 2018 study in The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery that looked at marathon runners who logged at least 10 miles weekly in training revealed a low prevalence of hip and knee arthritis compared to the general population. That was true even among those in older age groups. But how about new runners? They benefit as well, according to a 2020 study in Skeletal Radiology, which found that new runners' bone marrow and knee cartilage improved for at least six months after their first race.
Even if you already have knee issues, it's possible that you could improve the condition as long as you increase your mileage very gradually, according to Alessio Bricca, PhD, at the Center for Muscle and Joint Health at the University of Southern Denmark. Of course, if you fall into this category, it's key to consult with your doctor before lacing up.
"The belief that exercise like running damages cartilage is based on misinformation", he said. "If anything, exercise done in the right way, even for those with knee osteoarthritis, [it] could improve cartilage composition".
3.It boosts gut health—and all that goes with it.
Even if you don't always love running, it's likely that all the beneficial bacteria in your gut are superfans. The collection of bacteria, called the microbiome, is strongly influenced by physical activity, and running certainly isn't an exception. One 2019 study in Physiological Reports on the effects of ultramarathon running found significant shifts in this bacteria both during a run and afterward.
Boosting gut functionality does far more than improve digestion—although that's an effect—it can also help with cardiovascular health, cognitive function, sleep and mood, said Mary Purdy, RDN, author of "The Microbiome Diet Reset".
"What's happening in our microbiome influences nearly every physiological function we have", she said. "Think of your microbiome as an ecosystem that you can support or diminish, depending on what you eat and how you move".
4.Running can support liver health.
Across the world, one chronic condition that's been growing at an alarming pace is metabolic-associated fatty liver disease, or MAFLD, previously called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The leading reason for liver transplantation, the disease affects an estimated 25 percent of people globally.
Often creeping up with no symptoms, MAFLD involves a build-up of fat in the liver, which can have serious ramifications for blood clotting, digestion and liver function. But there's one strategy that seems to work well for prevention: exercise. In a 2020 study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, participants spent 12 weeks doing exercise sessions on treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers. After three months, the main MAFLD markers were significantly reduced, and participants also showed improved oxygen consumption—even though each session was only 10 minutes.
5.It can help combat feelings of burnout.
Whether you're feeling frazzled because of your job or you're burnt out due to, well, everything, it's tough to get back to feeling energised. But running can actually be a boon for that, too.
Research published in a 2015 issue of the journal PeerJ looked at the benefits of both cardiovascular and resistance exercise on reducing workplace burnout and found that each had its benefits, but cardio—including running—was particularly good at decreasing psychological distress, emotional exhaustion and perceived stress. Resistance training was a booster when it came to prompting feelings of personal accomplishment.
Researchers noted that the link between exercise and mental health is strong, as it's backed up by decades of studies, but there's been less research around burnout specifically. In this study, participants completed three 30-minute sessions for three weeks, and saw significant improvements in their stress levels, suggesting that if you're feeling signs of burnout—like overwhelm, fatigue and brain fog—just a few bouts of running weekly could extinguish those flames.
Don't miss How to Increase Running Mileage Without Getting Injured, According to Experts. Then, make sure you download the Nike Run Club App for more expert-backed advice!
Words by Elizabeth Millard