How running can add years to your life, staving off disease and decline
Run to… improve your mental health
Mental health has been getting a lot more media coverage recently, so you may have read that cardiovascular exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety (and without many of the distressing side effects associated with some medicines). A 2017 meta-analysis by Boston University, US, of 11 studies that looked at the effect of exercise on depressive conditions confirmed something that many runners know through experience to be true: that getting a sweat on helps your mental health both in the short and long term. The study authors recommended that exercise, while not a substitute for other forms of treatment, should definitely be used as part of the treatment process for people with mental health issues.
PRESCRIPTION Being around friends is hugely important, so try this fun, group-based handicap run: gather some fellow runners of different abilities and do an out-and-back 40-minute run. The outward leg should be for 23 minutes, carried out at each runner’s version of a steady pace. After 23 minutes, wherever each of you is on the route, turn and run back at tempo pace, trying to make it back to the beginning before the 40 minutes are up. You should all finish close together.
Run to… improve your memory as you age
In a March 2018 study at Brigham Young University, Utah, US, regular exercise was found to counteract the negative effects stress has on memory by improving the way your brain cells communicate. The cells’ ability to communicate well is often diminished by life ‘issues’ such as stress, lack of sleep, alcohol and a poor diet. When brain cells stop communicating properly, memories unravel.
Researchers divided male mice into two groups – ‘runners’ who ran on wheels in their cages for three miles a day for one month, and a group that did not run at all. They
then took some mice from each group and created a stressful environment by restraining them for three days. Analysis of the results revealed that the stressed non-running mice fared the worst – their brain cells were not communicating, potentially leading to a breakdown of memories. The sedentary mice who had not been stressed were next, followed by the stressed runners. The bestperforming group were the mice who had run and were kept away from the stressful environments; their brain cell communication and, therefore, memory-retention abilities showed signs of improvement.
PRESCRIPTION ‘Fartlek training has been shown to stimulate the nervous system and the brain, because it’s a more creative way to train,’ says endurance coach Tom Craggs (runningwithus.com). A Swedish word meaning ‘speedplay’, fartlek sessions are like interval training, except the intervals are random and you choose them on the hoof. For example, you might decide to sprint to the next lamppost, then run at an effort of five out of 10 for two minutes, followed by tempo pace for a quarter of a mile. ‘Variety is the key,’ says Craggs. ‘Do your version of a medium-length run (but it should last no more than an hour) once a week, breaking it up into spontaneous segments of 30 seconds to two minutes at different paces and speeds. This will make you concentrate more and get your synapses firing.’
Run to… clean your gut
In a recent study, researchers at the University of Illinois, US, isolated the ways in which exercise – versus diet or taking antibiotics – alters the microbiome, the network of bacteria in our guts. The study revealed that after a few weeks of regular cardiovascular exercise, many subjects’ microbes changed in ways that could improve their health.
The subjects, a mix of men and women, varying from lean to obese, were asked to run or cycle for 30- 60 minutes, three times per week, for six weeks. However, they made no further changes to their lifestyles or diets. Scientists compared each subject’s microbiome before and after the programme. In most participants there was an increase in microbes involved in the production of short- chain fatty acids, which are believed to help reduce inflammation throughout the body. They can also help fight insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.
PRESCRIPTION If regular running is the key to a cleaner gut, then ensure the bulk of your training is done at a low intensity to limit your chances of injury, says Craggs. ‘It’s important to learn to run at a conversational pace instead of always beasting yourself,’ he says. ‘If you train by heart rate, this means 60-70 per cent of your maximum heart rate. Between 50 and 80 per cent of your weekly mileage should be done at this intensity – it’s the backbone of your training.’
Run to… increase your self-control
Good news for the greedy: the journal
Behaviormodification recently published a study from the University of Kansas, US, looking at how training for a 5K affected the ability to exercise self- control over behaviours such as binge eating. Before training began, the subjects were given a delay-discounting questionnaire – a process scientists use to assess a person’s ability to put off immediate pleasures for greater future pleasures. For example, would you choose one indulgent biscuit now if you could instead have three normal ones tomorrow?
The subjects, who did not exercise before the study, met three times a week for seven weeks to train for their race. They did 45-minute run/ walk sessions at exertion levels that were challenging but manageable. Each week they repeated the delay-discounting questionnaire to measure their self- control. Those who saw the greatest improvements in willpower were those who attended the most sessions and steadily increased their running pace.
PRESCRIPTION ‘A weekly progression run will help to improve your willpower as well as your ability to manage your pace,’ says Craggs. Try a 30-minute run broken down in the following way: 10 minutes easy (5/10 effort), 10 minutes steady (7/10), 10 minutes controlled discomfort (8/10). Progress to segments of 15 minutes. ‘Most people champ at the bit to get to the fast parts, but be careful not to let yourself loose too early.’
Run to… reduce your diabetes risk
A long-term study of Japanese men published in autumn 2017 found the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was lower in men who had a consistently higher fitness level over a median 18-year period, compared with men who had lower fitness levels or sporadic fitness activity. So for those of you who tend to train like a demon for several events a year, followed by fallow periods of sedentary behaviour, this is unlikely to be as beneficial as you might think if you’re worried about the threat of diabetes.
PRESCRIPTION Change the way you think about your training by reframing your goals and periodising your year, says Craggs. ‘This means filling in the gaps between your longer races by training for other events of differing distances. Plan your year, choosing your races based on when you will be hitting your various peaks for 5K, 10K, half marathon and longer. You’ll be switching up your training stimuli without overtraining, and maintaining your consistency without risking getting bored and letting things slip.’
Run to… boost your immunity
While you might not be smashing PBS into your 60s, keeping up the running as you get older will help you stay one step ahead of infection. A study of 125 older UK athletes, published in Aging
Cell in March, looked closely at the muscles and T cells (our immune systems’ key infection-fighting tools) of active, ageing cyclists – men and women aged 55-79 – who had been cycling regularly for decades, comparing them with an older group (57-80), sedentary people and a third group of much younger healthy adults (20-36) who do not regularly exercise. The results were clear: for
most adults, immune response worsens drastically by middle age, declining further with each passing decade. The older cyclists in the study bucked this trend, however, having seemingly rejuvenated their immune systems; they had almost as many infection-fighting T cells in their blood as the group of young adults.
PRESCRIPTION If you’re over 40 and plan to keep running regularly, it’s time to make sure your body can cope with the stress – which means strength and conditioning work. Don’t worry, though, says Craggs, this doesn’t involve fingerless weightlifting gloves and a pricey gym membership. ‘Twice a week, do this simple bodyweight session at home,’ he says. ‘Do one minute each of plank, left and right side planks, hip bridge, single-leg squats and press-ups. Twice through is one set. Do three sets with 60 seconds’ rest between each.’
Run to… slow ageing
Last year, scientists at the Mayo Research Clinic in Minnesota, US, illustrated how strenuous exercise can alter the rate at which we age. They compared how genes work inside muscle cells after older and younger people completed intense exercise, and found that those aged 64 and older had significantly different gene behaviour after practising high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for 12 weeks; and many of those genes are directly related to the health and ageing of cells. Not only was there a decrease in age-related decline in muscle power, but there was also an increase in the production of mitochondria (the muscle cells’ powerhouses), which can help improve performance. The key was that instead of just running, the HIIT training included a mix of strength moves that help to build all- over fitness and strength in a way that running can’t.
PRESCRIPTION Time to crack out some Oregon Circuits (named after the University of Oregon, where they were invented in 1983). This is the perfect HIIT session for runners,’ says Craggs. ‘It improves speed, strength, cardio, stamina, posture and all-over fitness – and there’s no equipment.’
Rotate through the following moves continuously for eight minutes to make one set. Do three sets with two-minute rests between each set. Progress to sets of 10 and then 12 minutes as you improve: – 400m at 5K pace (9/10 effort) – Body-weight squats (x 20) – Plank (20 secs) – 20 alternate lunges (10 each leg) – Bridge (20 secs) – Static squat (20 secs
Run to… combat dementia
If you’re a runner, congratulations: you’re doing a fine job of warding off dementia in later life. If you’ve just started running, congratulations to you, too – you’ve already started protecting your brain. Scientists at the National Institute on Aging in the US analysed the effects of regular running on neurogenesis in test subjects. What this means is how quickly the subjects could produce new neurons (the building blocks your nervous system relies on to send signals to every part of your body) and how strong the connections were between those neurons. Active test subjects were compared with non-active subjects, and those who ran for a month had many more new neurons, allowing them to better connect with the brain’s communications network, improving spatial memory – often the first thing to decline with the onset of dementia. The team then repeated the study but reduced the test period to a week; the results were similar, with the new cells in the active group’s brains strengthening the part of the brain often associated with early memory loss and dementia.
PRESCRIPTION ‘The critical thing here is to form a habit,’ says Andy Lane, Professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘Set the goal of getting out the door rather than how long and how far you’ll go for: “I’ll walk for five minutes, then run and stop when I have had enough…and then decide.” Conquering the thought of not going adds to the feel-good sense that you have strong self-regulation skills. Once you get a sequence going, keep setting goals, such as running for 25 days a month.’
Run to… lower your cancer risk
Scientists have long known that women who are physically fit have a lower risk of developing breast cancer, but they’re not yet sure why. A new study published in the journal
Carcinogenesis compared a group of ‘fit’ rats that were bred to have high levels of physical fitness with a group bred to have low fitness. They were examined to see how susceptible they are to developing breast cancer when exposed to a chemical known to lead
to the disease. The unfit rats were four times more likely to develop breast cancer than the fit rats. The fitness measures used were the same as the parameters employed to measure the fitness levels of people, such as VO2 max and body-fat percentage. There’s a potential double win here: not only will improving your own fitness help to reduce your chances of developing breast cancer, but the fitter you are, the more likely it is that any female children you have will not develop the disease.
PRESCRIPTION ‘Doing this Vo2-max session once a week will turbocharge your fitness,’ says Craggs. ‘Do four minutes at 10K pace (8/10 effort), rest for 60 seconds, then do one minute at 5K pace (9/10 effort). Do 4-5 sets with two-minute recoveries in between. For the session to work you have to be honest with yourself about both the speed you run at and the rest periods.’ Add sets as you progress.
SHIELD YOURSELF Running can offer protection against a range of diseases and chronic conditions