In middle and older ages, running may be associated with reduced disability and increased survival, according to a report released on August 11, 2008 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

The United States, largely thanks to innovations in medical technologies, has made a major shift to a generally older population. “Age-adjusted death rates have reached record lows and life expectancy has reached record highs in recent years, likely due to a combination of behavior and societal changes as well as improved medical and surgical therapies,” states the article. As a result, the quality of life for the elderly has become a focus for research. The authors continue: “With the rise in life expectancy, it becomes necessary to focus on improving the quality of life and functional abilities as people reach older ages. Regular exercise, including running, may contribute to improved health among older adults.”

There are many ways that regular exercise might reduce the risk of disability and death, thus improving quality of life, including increased cardiovascular fitness, aerobic capacity, and bone mass. Additionally, running might lower levels of inflammatory markers, improve vaccination reponse, and improve cognitive functioning, according to the authors.

To investigate the effects of running in particular on quality of life in old age, Eliza F. Chakravarty, M.D., M.S. and colleagues at the Stanford University School of Medicine canvased 284 members of a nationwide running club alongside 156 controls who were healthy and recruited from the university’s faculty and staff. At the start of the study in 1984, all participants were 50 years or older. A mailed questionnaire was received annually, for which the participants provided information their exercise habits, body mass index, and level of disability.

Generally, at the beginning of the study, the runners were younger, leaner, and less likely to smoke than their control counterparts. After 19 years, 15% of the runners (81) had died, in comparison with 34% of the controls (144). At all times, disability levels in runners were lower, and though this level increased in both groups over time, the increase was less pronounced in the runners. By the end of the 21 years of follow up, the authors evaluated disability as follows: “the higher levels among controls translate into important differences in overall daily functional limitations.” They continued, stating that “disability and survival curves continued to diverge between groups after the 21-year follow-up as participants approached their ninth decade of life.”

They conclude, noting the importance of physical activity in older people. “Our findings of decreased disability in addition to prolonged survival among middle-aged and older adults participating in routine physical activities further support recommendations to encourage moderate to vigorous physical activity at all ages.” They continue, “Increasing healthy lifestyle behaviors may not only improve length and quality of life but also hopefully lead to reduced health care expenditures associated with disability and chronic diseases.”

Reduced Disability and Mortality Among Aging Runners: A 21-Year Longitudinal Study
Eliza F. Chakravarty, MD, MS; Helen B. Hubert, PhD; Vijaya B. Lingala, PhD; James F. Fries, MD
Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(15):1638-1646.
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Written by Anna Sophia McKenney