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Impact of running on mortality risk

by A. Manolova | 12 November 2019

sport, health, running, cardiovascular, cancer, mortality, all-cause, study, science, meta-analysis, risk

As we explained in our previous article, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends for all adults a weekly minimum level of physical activity for health benefits. Thus, it is recommended to spend at least 150 minutes a week doing moderate activities (between 3 and 6 METs, or 7.5-15 METs-h/wk) or at least 75 minutes a week performing intense activities (above 6 METs, ie > 15 METs-h/wk). This means that to follow these health recommendations, you can do for example 5 sessions of 30 minutes of running (6.5 km/h is 6 METs) per week or 3 sessions of 25 minutes of running 10 km/h (10 METs). A person is considered physically inactive when he/she does not meet this criteria. Some researchers believe that 5 million premature deaths a year could be avoided if people adhere to official recommendations.

Physical activity encompasses all activities requiring an expenditure greater than 1.5 METs, and sports activities are a sub-category, more specific and organized. Among these, running is one of the most practiced in the world. For good reason, it is easily accessible to a large part of the population since it only requires a pair of running shoes and it is also easily scalable to everyone's level, some people can also start simply with a brisk walk then increase the intensity as they go up to running. Numerous studies and meta-analyzes have focused on the impact of physical activity on health, but few have yet specifically questioned a particular sport activity and its impact on health. Is running associated with a decrease in mortality? If yes, is there an optimal dose?

The Study

To answer this question, an international team of researchers conducted a study on the impact of running on mortality. For this, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 14 studies involving 232,149 participants over a period of 5.5 to 35 years, during which 25,951 people died. All these studies were selected because they studied individually the link between the practice of running and the risk of mortality of any cause (6 studies), cardiovascular (3 studies) or cancer (5 studies). The participants reported their own practice in running (frequency, speed, volume). About 10% of the participants practiced running. In addition to these data, the researchers also analyzed whether there was a dose-response relationship, that is, to understand if a higher dose of running brings more benefits concerning mortality.

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this meta-analysis show that the participation in running reduces the risk of mortality in comparison to those who do not run of 27% for all-cause mortality, of 30% for the mortality due to cardiovascular diseases and 23% for cancer mortality. Moreover, no significant dose-response trend has been demonstrated, the benefits on mortality would not increase with larger doses of running. Even the smallest running dose observed in the different studies available (once a week or less, less than 50 minutes per week, less than 10 km/h and less than 8 METs-h/week) allowed bring benefits on all-cause mortality.

The decrease in mortality risk can be explained by the improvement of physiological indices caused by running. Indeed, another meta-analysis of 2015 shows that a regular practice of running (3-4 times a week, 2-3 hours a week, at 60-90% of the maximum heart rate for 1 year) allows reduce body fat, decrease resting heart rate and triglyceride levels, and increase VO2MAX and high density lipoprotein (HDL) levels.

Practical Applications

Running is associated with a lower risk of death. No matter how little you run, running is better than not running. While running a lot does not necessarily seem associated with a larger decrease in mortality risk. However, these results are conditional because the low number of people running a lot makes the statistical analyzes more fragile and this point should be checked in future more comprehensive studies where a larger number of participants with a larger training volume would take go.

Another meta-analysis in 2015 concluded that a high dose of training would not bring additional benefits, and even could lead to an increased risk of death in the same way of little or no training. However, the problem remains the same, these studies often have few participants with intense sport practice and few deaths are recorded in these groups during the observation period, so it is statistically difficult to draw any serious conclusions. The VO2MAX is one of the proven factors of longevity, and running more generally increases its value. However, VO2MAX is a physiological attribute related to many other factors, such as genotype. The results of the meta-analyzes not observing higher dose benefits may reflect this point, so maybe other factors must be considered.

Nevertheless, these results support the official recommendations, and it does not take much to improve its health. If time seems to be lacking, know that one session a week on weekends is a good start, no matter the time or intensity. And from the moment you take control of yourself, the benefits to your health are instantly.

References

  1. Pedisic Z, Shrestha N, Kovalchik S, Stamatakis E, Liangruenrom N, Grgic J, Titze S, Biddle SJH, Bauman AE and Oja P. Is running associated with a lower-risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and is the more the better ? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med Article in Press, 2019.

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