The Many Health Benefits of Running – And How to Get Started

Are you a runner? If you are, that’s awesome! Or perhaps you’ve tried running before and given up, or never gave it a chance at all. The truth is that running can benefit almost every part of your body and your mind. It’s not hard to learn, and can be done anywhere, anytime. Read on for more on the many health and wellness benefits of intelligently incorporating running into your life.

Heart Health

Research shows that running can raise your levels of good cholesterol. It strengthens your heart and keeps your arteries elastic, lowering the risk of heart attack. It improves lung capacity, and reduces the likelihood of blood clots, therefore decreasing the risk of stroke. (For more information on how the heart works, read this article: Heart Smarts.)

Disease Prevention

Running has been shown to boost the immune system, even lower the risk of developing breast and other cancers. It strengthens bones, helping to fend off osteoporosis. Running helps improve insulin sensitivity, which is critical to managing Type II diabetes.

Weight Loss

Running is one of the best forms of exercise for losing weight (and maintaining a healthy weight as well). Running is a great calorie-burner, second only to cross-country skiing.

Your Mind Benefits Too

Running can provide a major boost to your confidence and self-esteem. By setting and achieving running goals, you empower yourself to achieve more in all aspects of your life.

Running, like many forms of exercise, can be a great stress and tension reliever. When you run, your body releases the pent-up energy from the day in a healthy way. As well, being outdoors in the fresh air revitalizes your mind and body. Too cold or wet to run outdoors? The treadmill or indoor running track gives you time to focus inward, or even listen to your favorite music, an audio book or podcast – all of which takes your mind off the endless hamster wheel of must-do’s, deadlines, and responsibilities, even for just a little while.

When you’re stressed, overwhelmed, or depressed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is going for a run. But if you can just get started, your brain will begin to release hormones that are natural mood-boosters.

“But running is bad for your knees/shins/feet/lower back/[fill in the blank]…and what about that guy who’d been a runner all his life and fell down dead from a heart attack?”

Running isn’t a walk in the park, I’ll give you that (but how about a run in the park?) Like any form of moderate-to-high-intensity exercise, running involves getting out of your comfort zone. But there are definitive ways to do it so you minimize the risk of short and long-term injury by progressing at a safe and effective pace. I delve into this in another  article [read: Injury Prevention: Seven Basic Rules] but for now here are just a few ways to develop a running practice without injury:

  • Wear appropriate shoes. Go to a running store and get fitted for the right shoes for your stride and foot type. Will you pay more than at a department or discount store? Of course. But the resulting comfort and durability, plus the advice of knowledgeable staff, are priceless.
  • Have your form evaluated. While the running store can do this in a limited manner, a good running coach can videotape you and really pinpoint where you can improve. The easiest ways to improve form are in your arm swing, your foot strike, your cadence/stride length, and your forward lean. More on this in an upcoming article
  • Start slow. This means low mileage, short amounts of time, and a slow pace. After a good warm-up of at least 10 minutes, build up a pattern of running and walking. Renowned running guru Jeff Galloway has built an entire movement around his run/walk method. It works.
  • Follow a plan. Ideally, a certified running coach is your best bet when you need help getting started with running. Standardized running plans from magazines or online (like the popular Couch to 5k plans) can also work – but keep in mind you’ll likely need to modify to ensure you don’t overdo it when following one of these plans.
  • Cross train. Do something different to balance out your fitness and develop those non-running muscles. Cycling, Zumba, and strength training are all great choices.
  • Take days off. Your muscles get stronger when you’re recovering from exercise – not during it. Insufficient recovery leads to overtraining and burnout, so take at least one full day off from running – two if you’re just getting started.

Running is incredibly beneficial for your body, mind and spirit. It can help you feel more focused, energized and confident, and relieve stress in a healthy way – all while strengthening your muscles, bones and heart.

Footnote: The running guru who died of a heart attack was Jim Fixx, author of the iconic The Complete Book of Running. Jim had led a very unhealthy lifestyle (heavy smoking, alcohol and poor diet) up into his 40’s when he began running. Although he stopped smoking, he believed a healthy diet wasn’t that important. He consistently touted that not smoking and sufficient exercise protects against heart disease, and sharply criticized those who promoted a healthy diet in combination with exercise. Jim Fixx was found dead on a country road at the age of 52 from a massive heart attack. An autopsy revealed that three of his coronary arteries were more than 70 percent blocked, and one was 99 percent blocked. Ironically, his father had also died of a heart attack at age 43.

The moral of the story is well-put by Jack LaLanne, the fitness icon who lived to the age of 96: “Exercise is king, and nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”

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