Running: The Good and the Bad (Why Running Can Be Bad for Your Body)
On this blog, we’re quite passionate about running, and we almost always frame it in a positive light. That’s fair considering the multitude of proven benefits associated with running. Yet running isn’t always the best choice for the body, at least not for everyone. What are the health upsides and downsides of being a runner?
Running is advantageous in many ways, such as accelerating calorie burning and thus potential weight loss, improving heart health, lessening stress, and reducing depression. Running is not without risk though, including overexertion, possible increased risk of injuries, insomnia, and imbalanced muscle mass.
In this extensive guide, we’ll break down both the pros and cons of running in greater detail, using studies and science to back it up whenever possible. We’ll also discuss whether the downsides of running are enough that you might want to reconsider becoming a runner or cut back on your weekly mileage.
Let’s get started.
This Is How Running Benefits Your Body
Significant Calorie Burning
If you’re looking to get into a mode of exercise that burns a lot of calories, few are better than running. Just take a look at this Fit Facts report from the American Council on Exercise or ACE.
Let’s say you’re a 120-pound person. If you’re weight-training, you’re only burning 6.6 calories a minute. When playing some basketball, you shed 7.5 calories a minute. Aerobic dancing torches 7.4 calories a minute. Only running burns more than 10 calories every 60 seconds. To be precise, you’d torch 11.4 calories a minute at 120 pounds.
If you weigh 140 pounds, now you’re burning 13.2 calories a minute. At 160 pounds, it’s 15.1 calories a minute and at 180 pounds, 17.0 calories per minute.
Besides the above activities, running burns more calories than walking, playing tennis, swimming, all forms of skiing, all forms of skating, jogging, hiking, golfing, cycling, and bowling.
Good for Weight Loss
Losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you ingest. We already mentioned how running is one of the best physical activities for torching calories, so it should come as no surprise that weight loss tends to follow.
The McGill Office for Science and Society through McGill University cites a study done in 2017 at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on running and weight loss. The study lasted six years and had thousands of respondents. Some were avid runners and others enjoyed walking more.
Both groups had the same body mass index, which was higher than 28, thus making the participants overweight. When the groups exercised for the same length of time but one group ran and the other walked, the runners lost weight at a drastically higher rate, up to 90 percent.
Paul Williams, the lead researcher of the study, had this to say about the findings: “Running is more effective than walking in preventing weight gain and achieving weight loss.” He adds the caveat that diet also played a role in the participants’ weight loss, which is a good thing to mention.
The study goes even deeper with numbers and specifics. Williams mentions that if a woman with a BMI of 28 or over started walking 3.2 miles every day, she’d lose nine pounds. If she went the same distance but ran and did it daily, she’d drop 19 pounds. That’s quite a difference!
Weight loss is not a uniform experience for everyone, as factors such as exercise intensity, diet, and metabolism all play a role. Do keep that in mind as you proceed.
Controls Blood Pressure
Do you have hypertension or high blood pressure? If so, you’re not alone. As many as 68 million United States adults have been diagnosed with this condition, which is one in three people, says the American Medical Group Foundation.
You can also be prehypertensive, where you have a higher blood pressure than recommended but not enough to qualify as someone with hypertension. Your blood pressure may be 120/80 through 139/89. There’s still time to turn your health around, and running can help. Even hypertensive patients can reduce blood pressure through running.
Any exercise performed causes the heart to become stronger. This allows for more blood-pumping with less arterial force so blood pressure can gradually come down.
So yes, while you have your choice of exercise, there’s data out there that suggests running might be one of your better choices. For instance, take this 2008 study from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
The study fetaured more than 50,000 hypertensive participants, more women than men. All would run semi-long distances at a vigorous pace every week. The exercise was able to lower the patients’ need for blood pressure medication between 46 and 54 percent. The study wraps by stating that the intensity of one’s exercise can lead to more pronounced results in blood pressure decreases.
May Lower Diabetes and Cancer Risks
Besides being able to decrease your blood pressure, exercise can slash your diabetes risk as well. A 2012 report, also from the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, reviewed 55 participants who exercised over 16 weeks. The researchers gauged the participants’ insulin levels and insulin sensitivity using graded exercise tests, peak oxygen uptake, and euglycemic hyperinsulinemic clamps.
Regardless of gender and age, the participants who exercised more had a higher insulin sensitivity. By the way, insulin sensitivity or resistance is how well your body recognizes and processes insulin. Being insulin resistant can cause type 2 diabetes.
As for cancer, exercise like running can help just as it does in safeguarding you against diabetes and hypertension. The Journal of Clinical Oncology in a 2019 report studied more than 755,000 participants between 32 and 91 years old over a span of more than 10 years. The participants who exercised at least 7.5 hours every week were at a lower risk of seven types of cancer out of a possible 15. These included:
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (11 to 18 percent risk reduction for women)
- Liver cancer (18 to 27 percent risk reduction)
- Myeloma (14 to 19 percent risk reduction)
- Kidney cancer (11 to 17 percent risk reduction)
- Endometrial cancer (10 to 18 percent risk reduction)
- Breast cancer (6 to 10 percent risk reduction)
- Colon cancer (8 to 14 percent risk reduction for men)
Boosts Mental Health
Everyone faces stress in their lives, but how much stress you deal with can easily detract from your quality of life. High stress can reduce libido, cause insomnia, increase your heart rate, lead to aches and pains, worsen gastrointestinal distress, induce headaches, and cut down on your energy. You might even be more likely to get infections and illnesses like colds.
Running can bust the stress in your life in several ways. When you befriend and join other runners or get those in your social circle interested in running, you develop a small community. You also have something to look forward to with running, and many regard it as me-time away from the boss, coworkers, and family.
As for other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, running can be instrumental in lifting one’s mood. One study on the topic from a 2018 publication of BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine featured participants enrolled in the Mood Disorders Program at St. Joseph Healthcare Hamilton. There were 46 participants in all who were part of the study for about three years.
The researchers gauged the participants’ level of both anxiety and depression throughout the study. The social support of exercise was found to be the biggest perk, which did in turn lower anxiety and depression symptoms in some participants.
The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2004 also examined how exercise can impact depression. They compared the results of several studies to conclude that “exercise is a behavioral intervention that has shown great promise in alleviating symptoms of depression.”
Helps–Not Hinders–Knee Health
The intensity of running has caused many people to believe that marathoners and other frequent runners are killing their knees each time they lace up their running shoes. This Jumpstart by WebMD article debunks that rumor.
It’s not the act of running itself that can be horrible on your knees, but rather, how you run. If you know the right way to hold yourself when running and can take the proper strides, then you should feel little if any pain. It’s those runners who don’t know what they’re doing who tend to have knee pain. They then turn around and blame running for their soreness.
The WebMD article mentions a study published in 2013 with 75,000 participants, all runners. The runners were studied for several years to see how running would affect their knee health. The data found that arthritis risk actually decreased in runners compared to those who don’t run.
Potential Longer Lifespan
Everyone wants to live longer, but what is the secret to longevity? Part of the formula may be running.
As you recall, running and other forms of exercise can reduce your risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and many cancers. All this can keep you around longer. Further, this Stanford Medicine writeup from 2008 mentions a study its university did on the lifespan of runners.
The 20-year study on 500 runners reports that, even in their older age, the runners had longer lives, less aging, and not nearly as many disabilities compared to non-runners.
Why Running Can Be Bad for Your Body
Now that we’ve established the bounty of benefits your body can experience through running, we have to delve into the not-so-good stuff. Here are some ways that running can be bad for your body.
Too Easy to Overexert Yourself
When you first start running, you’ll want to do it all. If you have a friend or family member who encouraged you to run, you’ll certainly wish to keep up with them. You might feel inclined to sign up for several races too, even a marathon.
As we’ve discussed on this blog before, running doesn’t work like that. You have to take the time to build up your endurance and stamina first. The only way to get there is by running little by little.
In the beginning, you won’t be able to run a few blocks without being winded. Eventually, you’ll find you can easily run a quarter-mile, then a half-mile, then an entire mile, and next two miles, three miles, and so on.
Overexerting yourself too early can be detrimental in many ways. You’ll feel like you’re not a good runner even though you never truly gave yourself a chance. You’ll also fatigue yourself and possibly even end up burnt out.
Possibility of Injuries
The biggest risk of overexertion is the likelihood of injuries. We touched on this here on the blog recently, but muscles need a chance to recover. Building muscles involves tearing them on a microscopic level. The time you take between runs allows the muscles to heal and thus grow bigger with time.
The small-level damage done to your muscles through exertion is fine and even necessary, but long-term damage because you don’t know when to stop is the opposite of fine. You could tear muscles and strain tissue.
Even outside of overexertion, injuries can still happen when running. Maybe you overslept for your run, so you forget to stretch and pull a muscle. Perhaps you ran after dark and tripped and hurt yourself. You might have never learned the proper running form, so you’re injuring yourself all the time.
Might Cause Insomnia
It makes sense that as you fervently pound the pavement like you do with running, you’re going to sleep like a baby. Well, that’s what you think would happen, but it doesn’t always. Canadian Running Magazine in 2017 published an intriguing article on insomnia among runners.
The article mentions that runners tend to develop insomnia more than the average person for a few reasons. Perhaps you run too close to bedtime so your still-pumping adrenaline keeps you awake. Your brain might not want to turn off at night as you mentally plan your next route or think of how you can beat your previous speed record. Vigorous running might also leave you tossing and turning, says the magazine.
The article cites a 2014 study from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that involved 27 male participants. All were triathletes. First, the participants trained as they usually do for a week. Next, over three weeks, some trained at a normal level while others were told to intentionally overdo it. Finally, for two more weeks, their physical activity tapered down.
The over-exercisers had lower sleep efficiency and reduced sleep duration as well.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every runner is an insomniac, but among runners and other athletes, sleeplessness is a risk.
Imbalanced Muscle Mass
The last downside of running has to do with muscle mass. If you work out at the gym, then you probably dedicate specific days to training various body parts. For instance, one day you’ll focus on your arms, the next day your legs, and the day after that, your back and chest. This is how you build muscle uniformly across your body.
You can develop muscles through running, which is a topic we’ve discussed thoroughly on this blog, such as here. Those muscles tend to be in the lower half of your body though, from your core to your feet.
Although you move your arms when running, this movement alone isn’t enough to increase your upper-body muscle mass much. We did write about how you can add weights to your running routine, which might allow you to build arm muscle, but the results aren’t guaranteed.
Is Running Worth It?
Now that we’ve been through both the pros and cons of running, you might have one question on your mind. If you’re already a runner or you’re soon thinking of becoming one, is running still worth it?
Absolutely! As the list above shows, the benefits of running far outweigh the disadvantages. Further, most of those downsides are very much correctable.
For example, if you learn to pace yourself correctly, you won’t overexert yourself. Dedication to training and the proper form can keep you injury-free, at least for the most part. If you’re worried about only building muscle throughout the lower half of your body, you can supplement running with weight-lifting at the gym that focuses more on your upper half.
Insomnia is indeed a risk, but even non-runners deal with insomnia, so that alone isn’t necessarily a reason to stop running.
However, we always advise you to listen to your body. If you feel especially exhausted or you’re in a lot of pain since you’ve started running, it might be a good idea to shelve the activity for now. You might also want to see your primary care physician to ensure you’re in good health.
This blog is like a love letter to running, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Running can contribute to insomnia, and those runners who never learned the proper form or those who push themselves too much could develop injuries.
Now that you have the full picture of what running can do for you, both good and bad, you can make an educated decision about whether running fits into your lifestyle. We think it will!
If you’re planning to eat before you run, you want to schedule your mealtime at least two hours ahead of lacing up your shoes. You also want to stick within a range of 300 and 400 calories. Which foods will fuel you up before you run versus weighing you down?
You’ve recently decided to take up running. You love the freedom you feel when you’ve hit your stride, not to mention how fit running is making you. It’s your goal to participate in a race sooner than later, and you’ve already started preparing. A running buddy of yours suggested you buy some running socks as part of your training, but you’re not so sure. Are running socks worth it?