How Far Do You Have to Go to Score the Benefits of Running?

If you’ve ever felt embarrassed about your morning mile as you scroll through friends’ marathon medals and Ironman training on Instagram, take heart—you may actually be doing the best thing for your body. Running just six miles a week delivers more health benefits and minimizes the risks that come with longer sessions, according to a new meta-analysis in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. (Surprised? Then you should definitely read 8 Common Running Myths, Busted!)

Some of the world’s most foremost cardiologists, exercise physiologists, and epidemiologists looked at dozens of exercise studies spanning the past 30 years. Combing through data from hundreds of thousands of all types of runners, researchers discovered that jogging or running a few miles a couple of times a week helped manage weight, lower blood pressure, improve blood sugar, and lower the risk of some cancers, respiratory disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Even better, it lowered the runners’ risk of dying from any cause and extended their lives an estimated three to six years—all while lessening their risk for overuse injuries as they aged.

That’s a lot of return for a pretty small investment, lead author Chip Lavie, M.D., said in a video released with the study. And all of those health benefits of running come with few of the costs that people often associate with the sport. Contrary to popular belief, running did not seem to damage bones or joints and actually lowered the risk of osteoarthritis and hip replacement surgery, Lavie added. (Speaking of aches and pains, check out these 5 Beginner Running Injuries (and How to Avoid Each).)

Plus, those who ran less than six miles per week—only running one to two times per week, and less than 52 minutes per week (which is well below the federal activity guidelines for exercise) got the maximal benefits, says Lavie. Any time spent pounding the pavement more than this didn’t result in any increased health benefits. And for the group that ran the most, their health actually declined. Runners who ran more than 20 miles a week did show better cardiovascular fitness but paradoxically had a slightly increased risk of injury, heart dysfunction, and death—a condition the study authors termed “cardiotoxicity.”

“This certainly suggests that more is not better,” Lavie said, adding that they’re not trying to scare people who run longer distances or compete in events like a marathon, as the risk of serious consequences is small, but rather that these potential risks may be something they want to discuss with their doctors. “Clearly, if one is exercising at a high level it isn’t for health, because the maximum health benefits occur at very low doses,” he said.

But for the majority of runners, the study is very encouraging. The takeaway message is clear: Don’t be discouraged if you can “only” run a mile or if you’re “just” a jogger; you’re doing great things for your body with every step you take.

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