Beyond Just Fitness: Unveiling the 13 Proven Scientific Benefits of Running

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Looking for a comprehensive rundown of the scientific benefits of running? You’ve landed in the right spot!

Running is the undisputed champion of calorie-burning, stamina-boosting, heart-pumping aerobic exercises. It’s your ticket to managing weight, enhancing endurance, and fine-tuning cardiovascular health. But hold on tight because there’s more!

Hitting the pavement or trail isn’t just about physical fitness; it’s also a shield against chronic diseases like obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, stroke, and a laundry list of health adversaries.

But guess what? There’s an extra layer to this tale. Exercise, particularly the art of running, has the incredible power to reshape and supercharge your brain. It’s like a long-term investment in your cerebral prowess and overall longevity.

Curious about the scientific backing behind these running benefits? In today’s post, we’re diving deep into the scientifically proven perks of running. So, grab your running shoes, and let’s embark on this enlightening journey.

Running Benefit No 1 – Your Heart Health

The benefits of running for heart health are well-supported by scientific research. Here’s an overview of some key studies and how running contributes to heart health:

Study I: A study conducted at The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Life Science Division, found that running can lower the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Study II: Research published in Circulation in November 2013 demonstrated the positive impact of aerobic exercises like running on blood pressure and hypertension. It showed that moderate to intense physical exercise, including running for about 40 to 50 minutes per session over a three-month period, can lead to significant reductions in blood pressure.

Study III: A study involving female runners, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that regular running can increase levels of HDL (good cholesterol) while lowering LDL (bad cholesterol). This is a significant benefit for heart health.

Running helps prevent heart issues by:

  • Lowering blood pressure.
  • Strengthening the heart muscles.
  • Increasing the heart’s working capacity.
  • Improving blood flow.
  • Boosting levels of HDL (good cholesterol).
  • Reducing unhealthy triglyceride levels.
  • Lowering blood sugar levels.

To reap the heart health benefits of running, the American Heart Association recommends aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise per week. This amount of exercise can help maintain healthy blood pressure levels and support overall cardiovascular health.

Running Benefit No 2 –  Prevents Obesity

Running is indeed an effective tool for preventing and managing obesity, and its benefits for weight loss are supported by scientific research.

Here’s how running contributes to weight management and the science behind it:

Calories Burned: On average, running can burn around 100 calories per mile, depending on factors like speed, body weight, and terrain. This means that the more miles you run, the more calories you burn.

The Calorie Deficit Principle: Weight loss is a numbers game, often expressed as “calories in vs. calories out.” To lose one pound, you generally need to create a calorie deficit of around 3,500 calories. Running helps create this deficit by burning calories, and lots of them.

Complementary to Diet: While running is an effective calorie-burning activity, it’s crucial to remember that weight loss is not solely about exercise. Diet plays a significant role, and it’s essential to maintain a balanced and calorie-controlled diet alongside running.

Scientific Evidence: Research conducted at institutions like the Medical College of Wisconsin and VA Medical Center has shown that running at a challenging level on a treadmill can burn 700 to 800 calories in one hour. This demonstrates the calorie-burning potential of running. Another Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study of over 100,000 runners, those who logged in about 30 or more miles a week gained fewer pounds in their bellies all through their mid-life years than those who ran less than ten miles per week.

Better Than Walking For Weight Loss:  Research published in the publication, titled “Greater Weight Loss From Running Than Walking,” and conducted at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in Berkley, California, compared weight loss and weight maintenance by analyzing survey data from 15,000 walkers and 32,000 runners who enrolled in the six-year study.  Both groups lost weight, but the Runner’s Group shed more pounds.

Additional resource – Running with diabetes

Running Benefit No 3 –  Run away from Cancer

Recent statistics have put cancer as the third biggest killer in the world. Each year cancer claims the lives of over 500,000 people in the U.S. alone.

The most common cancers are breast cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, colon and rectum cancer, and prostate cancer.

Here’s some good news. The relationship between regular exercise and a reduced risk of cancer is supported by scientific research.

Here’s a summary of the evidence and findings from various studies:

Study I – Colon Cancer: A study published in the British Journal of Cancer found that individuals who engaged in brisk walking for up to 6 hours per week were about 25 percent less likely to develop colon cancer compared to those who walked only 30 minutes per week. This suggests that regular physical activity, even in the form of walking, can significantly reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Study II – Colon Cancer Markers: Research conducted by the Public Health Sciences Division and published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention revealed that consistent, moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise can reduce markers of increased colon cancer risk in men. Men who engaged in regular cardio exercise for over one hour per day, six days a week, showed a significant reduction in cellular propagation patterns in the colon associated with polyps and potential cancer development.

Study III – Breast Cancer Recurrence: Post-treatment, regular exercise has been shown to play a role in reducing the recurrence of cancer. A meta-analysis of 67 articles, which examined lifestyle factors influencing breast cancer recurrence rates, found that exercise and weight management were the most critical lifestyle choices for reducing the risks of cancer recurrence and mortality in breast cancer survivors.

Study IV – Reduce Side Effects: Exercising regularly helps soothe some of the side effects of cancer treatment, such as fatigue and nausea, for almost all cancer patients, according to a study.

Study V – Reduce Recurrence. According to research, regular exercise may cut the recurrence rate for those with breast cancer by a significant margin, in part by regulating hormone levels.

Running Benefit No 4 –  Improves Your Bone Health

As people age, they naturally lose bone mass, which can lead to health issues like osteoporosis. This condition makes bones weak and prone to fractures. Regular weight-bearing exercises, such as running, can help slow down this bone loss. When you engage in weight-bearing activities, it stimulates the growth of new bone, which can improve and maintain bone density.

You lose a lot of bone mass as you get older, which puts you at a higher risk for health issues, such as osteoporosis. This is a severe condition that afflicts about 200 million people worldwide—with about 40 million in the U.S. alone, according to the National Institute of Health.

Osteoporosis is characterized by feeble and easily broken bones, especially articulating bones,  such as the spine column, shoulders, hips, and wrists. The condition happens when your body produces more breaking down material (osteoclast) but less building material (osteoblast)

Once again, working out regularly is vital for maintaining—even improving—your bone health.

Research shows that weight-bearing exercise can help you slow this bone loss. Putting weight on your bones—whether by running, lifting weights, swimming, you name it—triggers and stimulates the growth of new bone.

Running Benefit No 5 – Stay Happy, Get Happier

Running can have a profound positive impact on mental health by reducing stress and improving mood. Here’s a summary of the research findings mentioned:

  • Study I: Research published in the Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness demonstrated that regular exercise, including running, led to reduced scores on the Depression, Anxiety & Stress Scale (DASS). This indicates that exercise can effectively lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, contributing to improved mental well-being.
  • Study II: A study published in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise found that runners have elevated levels of tryptophan, a key biochemical needed for serotonin production. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with elevated mood and reduced feelings of anxiety and depression. Low serotonin levels can lead to conditions like anxiety, insomnia, depression, and overeating. Some antidepressant medications work by prolonging the presence of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like serotonin in the body.
  • Running, according to the research, may have similar effects and can be as effective, if not more so, than selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs in treating mood disorders. In other words, unlike other chemical shortcuts to happiness—AKA medication—running is far cheaper, healthier, and does not come with a comedown or withdrawal symptom.

Additional resource – What’s the best temperature for running

Running Benefit No 6 –  Sleep Better while Running

Running can indeed have a positive impact on sleep quality and help alleviate insomnia.

Here’s why running can contribute to better sleep:

  • Research Findings: Studies, including research conducted at Northwestern Medicine, have shown that regular aerobic exercise, such as running, can improve sleep quality and even alleviate symptoms of chronic insomnia. Participants in these studies reported significant improvements in sleep quality when they followed a consistent exercise program.
  • Reduced Symptoms of Depression: Regular running and exercise have been associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. People who suffer from these conditions often experience sleep disturbances, and improving mood through exercise can indirectly lead to better sleep.
  • Increased Exposure to Natural Light: Outdoor running, in particular, exposes you to natural sunlight or bright light. Exposure to natural light helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, which play a crucial role in sleep-wake cycles. This can make it easier to fall asleep at night and wake up feeling refreshed in the morning.
  • Enhanced Sleep Patterns: Running and regular exercise can help regulate the body’s temperature, which is important for sleep. The body’s temperature typically drops in the evening, signaling the body that it’s time to sleep. Exercise can aid in this temperature regulation, making it easier to fall asleep.

Additional resource – How to find cheap running gear

Running Benefit No 7 –  Boost Brainpower

Running and regular exercise have been shown to have several positive effects on brain health and cognitive function:

  • Endorphin Release: When you engage in physical activity like running, your brain releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. These endorphins can lead to improved mental clarity, reduced stress, and enhanced mood.
  • Cognitive Function: Studies have suggested that running can lead to short-term improvements in cognitive function. After exercise, individuals often perform better on cognitive tasks, such as problem-solving, memory, and attention.
  • Improved Learning: Research has shown that regular aerobic exercise can improve learning and memory. This may be due to increased blood flow to the brain, the release of growth factors that support brain health, and the reduction of stress hormones.
  • Brain Structure: Running has been associated with positive changes in brain structure. Regular exercise may increase the size of the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory and learning.
  • Aerobic Capacity: As mentioned in the research involving rats, individuals with higher aerobic capacity tend to excel in learning tasks. This suggests that cardiovascular fitness may play a role in cognitive function.
  • Neuroplasticity: Exercise has been linked to increased neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself. This can lead to enhanced learning and cognitive flexibility.

Additional Resource – Your guide to running and sex drive.

running in the sun

Running Benefit No 8 –  Prevent Head Pounders

If you suffer from migraines, consider taking up running instead of a pill.

According to a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, regular cardio exercise can decrease the frequency and severity of head pounders by reducing tension.

Subjects who opted for a 10-week running program reported a decline of roughly 40 percent in the amount and intensity of migraines – as much as they’d get from medication.

Running and regular exercise can be effective in reducing the frequency and severity of migraines for some individuals. Here’s how exercise can help with migraines:

  • Stress Reduction: Exercise, including running, can help reduce stress levels. Stress is a common trigger for migraines in many individuals. By engaging in regular physical activity, you can lower your overall stress levels, potentially reducing the likelihood of migraine attacks.
  • Release of Endorphins: Running leads to the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood elevators. These endorphins can help reduce the perception of pain associated with migraines and improve overall well-being.
  • Improved Sleep: Regular exercise can contribute to better sleep quality and patterns. Poor sleep is another common migraine trigger. By getting enough restful sleep through exercise, you may reduce the risk of migraine attacks.
  • Enhanced Blood Circulation: Running increases blood circulation throughout the body, including the brain. Improved circulation can help alleviate migraine symptoms by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to brain cells.
  • Mental Distraction: Engaging in outdoor running can provide a mental escape from the stressors of daily life. The change of scenery and fresh air can help reduce anxiety and tension, which are often linked to migraines.

Running Benefit No 9 –  Running Makes You Smart

Running and regular aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on brain health and cognitive function.

Here’s how exercise can make you smarter and boost brainpower:

  • Neurogenesis: Running and cardio exercise can stimulate the growth of new nerve cells in the brain, a process known as neurogenesis. This can help increase brain tissue volume and maintain grey and white matter proportions. Neurogenesis is particularly important for memory and overall cognitive function.
  • Hippocampus Volume: The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with learning and memory. Research has shown that regular exercise, including running, can lead to an increase in hippocampus volume. This is significant because the hippocampus tends to shrink with age, but exercise can help counteract this effect.
  • Cerebral Blood Flow: Running and aerobic exercise improve blood circulation, including to the brain. Enhanced blood flow delivers more oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, promoting optimal brain function.
  • Nerve Function Regeneration: Studies have indicated that running may support nerve function regeneration, which is crucial for healthy brain functioning. Nerve regeneration can contribute to improved cognitive abilities.
  • Cognitive Benefits: Regular runners often report improved cognitive function, including enhanced concentration, memory, and problem-solving skills. Exercise-induced endorphin release can also positively impact mood and mental well-being.

Again don’t take my word for it. Check out the following research papers:

Study I

Running and other forms of cardio exercise triggers the growth of new nerve cells—neurogenesis—and blood vessels, angiogenesis, which combines to increase brain tissue volume, according to research conducted at the University of Maryland.

This is critical as previous research has shown that brain tissue volume contracts as we age.  In fact, we begin to lose brain tissue as early as our late 20’s. Exercise helps maintain grey and white matter proportion, the width and depth of the sulcus gyrus, which correlates with memory.

Study II

A report coming out of the University of Georgia shows that running might lead to nerve function regeneration—an essential ingredient in optimal and healthy cerebral functioning.

This research was reported in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and showed that those who exercised regularly increased the volume of their hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with learning and memory—by up to two percent, compared to sedentary peers.

This might not sound like a big deal until you realize, once again, that this region of the brain isn’t known for increases in both size and power during adulthood.

Running Benefit No 11 – Quick Recall

The positive impact of running on memory and learning is well-documented and extends to individuals with various cognitive conditions, including those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Here are some key findings from studies that highlight the cognitive benefits of running:

  • Memory Improvement in Alzheimer’s Patients: Research involving individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease showed that those who participated in an aerobic training program experienced improvements in memory capabilities compared to sedentary individuals. This suggests that regular aerobic exercise, such as running, can have a protective effect on cognitive function, even in the presence of neurodegenerative conditions.
  • Immediate Memory Enhancement: A study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills found that subjects performed memory tests 20 percent better after a running session than they did before exercising. This immediate memory enhancement is consistent with the idea that physical activity, including running, can boost cognitive function in the short term.

Running Benefit No 12 –  Get Productive

Running can indeed be a productivity booster, and there is scientific evidence to support this claim. Here are some key findings from research on the relationship between running and productivity:

A study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that employees who engaged in regular exercise, including running, during their workday experienced a significant increase in productivity. Specifically, these employees were reported to be 23 percent more productive than their sedentary counterparts. This suggests that incorporating exercise, such as running, into one’s daily routine can enhance workplace performance.

Running and other forms of physical activity are known to boost energy levels. When you engage in regular exercise, it can lead to increased alertness, improved focus, and enhanced mental clarity—all of which are essential for productivity.

To get the best out of your running session, do it first thing in the morning or at midday. Starting the day with a workout will get your mental engines firing high for the rest of the day.

Running Benefit No. 13 –  Runners Suffer From Fewer Disabilities/ And Live Longer

Scientific studies have provided strong evidence to support the idea that running can slow down the aging process and reduce the risk of disabilities and premature death. Here are some key findings from relevant research:

  • Slows the Aging Clock: Research conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine followed a group of runners and non-runners over a 21-year period. The study found that older runners experienced fewer disabilities and were as much as half as likely to die prematurely compared to non-runners. Running was associated with better balance control, a healthier lifestyle, and an overall higher quality of life in older individuals.
  • Prevents Disability and Early Mortality: A 13-year prospective cohort study involving elderly individuals who engaged in running and aerobic exercise found that these activities could help prevent disability and early mortality. Regular running was associated with improved cardio fitness, enhanced aerobic capacity, increased organ reserve, greater skeletal mass, and reduced levels of circulating inflammation. These factors contributed to a prolongation of disability-free life.
  • Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases: Running is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. By maintaining a healthy weight and promoting overall well-being, running can help individuals lead longer, more active lives.

How to Run The Smart Way

Running is undoubtedly beneficial for your brain health, but it’s essential to approach it in a balanced and smart way to avoid overtraining and its potential negative consequences.

Here are some tips on how to run the smart way:

  • Maintain a Balanced Diet: Proper nutrition is essential for optimal performance and recovery. Focus on a diet that includes complex carbohydrates for sustained energy, lean protein for muscle repair, and healthy fats for overall health. Pay attention to your pre-and post-workout nutrition to fuel your runs and aid in recovery.
  • Stay Hydrated: Dehydration can impair both physical and cognitive functions. Make sure to drink enough water throughout the day especially before, during, and after your runs, to stay properly hydrated.
  • Get Adequate Rest: Rest and recovery are crucial components of a successful running routine. Aim for seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night to allow your body and mind to recover. Don’t hesitate to take short naps if needed to boost your overall energy and cognitive function.
  • Avoid Overtraining: Overtraining can lead to physical and mental burnout, chronic fatigue, and even mental health issues. Listen to your body and incorporate rest days into your training schedule. Recovery days are just as important as your running days.
  • Cross-Train: Incorporating other forms of exercise, such as strength training, yoga, or swimming, can help prevent overuse injuries and provide mental variety. Cross-training also helps maintain a balanced, overall fitness level.
  • Set Realistic Goals: While pushing your limits can be rewarding, it’s essential to set achievable goals and progress gradually. Unrealistic goals can lead to frustration and overexertion.
  • Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to any signs of overtraining or burnout, such as persistent fatigue, irritability, sleep disturbances, or changes in your running performance. If you experience these symptoms, consider taking a break or reducing your training intensity.
  • Vary Your Training: Mix up your training routine with different types of runs, such as long runs, interval training, and recovery runs. Variety can keep your workouts interesting and reduce the risk of mental burnout.
  • Stay Mentally Engaged: Running can be a great way to clear your mind, but it’s also an opportunity to practice mindfulness and stay mentally engaged. Use your runs as a time for reflection, problem-solving, or simply enjoying the present moment.
  • Seek Professional Guidance: If you’re unsure about your training plan or experience persistent issues, consider consulting a coach or a healthcare professional who specializes in sports medicine. They can provide personalized guidance and help you avoid common pitfalls.

The 13 Scientific Benefits Of Running – Conclusion

There you have it!

As you can see from the list of benefits as well as the research papers mentioned above, exercise isn’t limited to losing weight or getting in shape. Its actual impact goes beyond aesthetics and straight to increasing your lifespan—as well as improving your health and well-being on all levels. What’s not to like!

Now it’s up to you. It will be a crying shame if, after learning about some of the science behind exercise and disease prevention, you decide to lead a sedentary lifestyle. And you don’t have to spend endless hours in the gym. Only three to four 30 to 45-minute sessions a week will drastically improve your health and cut your disease risk.

So what are you waiting for? Start now and never deviate. The rest is just detail.

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