The Benefits of Running in Your Later Adult Years

Your body has undergone many changes by the time you reach your older adult years. You lack the stamina, speed, and energy you once had, which has meant redefining your physical fitness routine. You might have thought running was one activity you have to leave behind at this phase of life, but it isn’t. If anything, running can be great for older adults. How?

Here are some benefits of running in your later adult years:

  • Restores lost endurance
  • Maintains your bone strength and health
  • Strengthens the knees
  • Keeps up cardiovascular health
  • Builds a stronger immune system
  • Tones lower body muscles
  • Helps brain and memory

Ahead, we’ll expound further on these running benefits for older adults as well as provide some running tips for your later years. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll realize that running can be done safely and advantageously even in older age! 

7 Reasons Older Adults Especially Should Run

Running Restores Lost Endurance

Endurance is one’s ability to maintain their activity over a long period, be that running, jogging, lifting weights, or doing anything else physical. Your endurance is directly tied to your stamina and performance.

It’s no secret that as you celebrate more birthdays, your performance and endurance begin to decline. Sports Performance Bulletin confirms as much in an article published in their magazine. “…as you age, you’ll experience a steady decline in your maximal exercise capacity…Another inescapable fact is that your capacity to recover rapidly from prolonged or hard bouts of training or competition will also decline.”

There are several reasons these declines occur, the magazine highlights. Some of them we’ll come back to later, such as a decrease in muscle mass. The other cause is reduced cardio-respiratory capacity. 

These changes can begin earlier than you’d expect. Sports Performance Bulletin notes that as early as 35 years old, your maximal strength and endurance levels start dropping, never to return to as high a level as in your early 30s again. 

Fortunately, running can restore some of that lost endurance, proving that it’s not gone for good. This 2014 Science News piece describes the results of a study done at Humboldt State University. The study involved a group of older adults, all 65+. One half of the group ran and the other half walked.

The researchers concluded that when the runners jogged at least thrice a week for 30 minutes, they had fewer symptoms of “age-related physical decline in walking efficiency” than the walkers. The runners’ walking efficiency may have been as much as 10 percent higher!

Running Maintains Bone Strength and Health

Bone density and mass both decrease in older adults. Where once, the bones would hold onto minerals such as phosphate and calcium, now it reabsorbs them. This reduces the rate of these minerals in the bones. Osteoporosis can follow, which leads to brittle bones as well as bone weakness. You’re then more prone to bone fractures and breaks.

The risk of running might seem too high for fragile bones, but a good running routine with breaks in between can be just what an adult needs in their later years. There’s data to back this up too.

A 2014 publication of the journal Missouri Medicine featured a group of male runners, all between the ages of 25 and 60. They exercised under researcher surveillance for a year, doing high-impact physical routines. 

At the end of that year-long study, the researchers found that the men’s bones had learned to do self-repair. Their bones were also stronger, and, more importantly, had grown! Yes, the men had bone growth after a year, not a decline in bone health. Some of these men were 60 years old too!

Although the study doesn’t talk about running specifically, since the men did high-impact activity, running certainly does fit the bill. Consistent running will also help, although it’s very important to take days off in your older years (more on this later). 

The study also states that “physical inactivity is a modifiable risk factor for osteoporosis, and increasing physical activity at any point throughout the lifespan positively affects bone health, while reductions in physical activity can result in bone loss.” 

If you’re sedentary now because you don’t want to spend a lot of money on exercise equipment or a gym membership, running is a low-cost means of getting out there and saving your bones. 

Running Strengthens the Knees

In our post about how running can be good (and bad) for your body, we talked about the common misconception that running destroys your knees. We also busted that myth since it’s definitely not true. 

Running can cause knee pain and injuries if you do it improperly, which is the same with any physical activity. Imagine going to the gym and using the machines the wrong way, then ending up in pain. It’s due to user error in this case, and the same can be true of running.

In that blog post, we cited a study mentioned in this Jumpstart by WebMD article. The study, which took place in 2013, involved 75,000 people, most of them active runners. Over several years, the researchers deduced that the runners had less chance of developing arthritis compared to the non-runners. 

There’s yet more data supporting better knee health in runners. A 2016 publication of the European Journal of Applied Physiology states how your risk of degenerative joint disorders decreases if you run regularly. You could even encourage the growth of fresh knee cartilage, actively strengthening your knees. This is sort of like how running can build bones. It’s good for the body in a lot of ways! 

Running Keeps up Cardiovascular Health

The blood vessels in the heart at your age aren’t the same as they are in a younger adult. The heart struggles to keep up when you feel stressed. When you exercise, your heart will pound too, even if your heart rate doesn’t change when at rest. Arteriosclerosis becomes a bigger risk in later adult years, which makes the arteries harden. Hypertension or high blood pressure may develop out of an arteriosclerosis diagnosis. 

These risk factors increase one’s chances of getting heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and/or heart attack, especially if you’re 65 or older. These are some of the leading causes of death in the United States.

We recently cited this Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercisereport from 2008 in our article about the positive and negative effects of running on the body. That study had more than 50,000 hypertensive participants. When the participants began exercising regularly, they were able to reduce their reliance on blood pressure medication, sometimes by more than 50 percent. 

Considering that high blood pressure is one risk factor that can affect your heart health as you age, running can already help your ticker in that way.

More so than that, in this post about running and heart health on our blog, we discussed a whole myriad of benefits that running can provide for the heart.

The Journal of the American College of Cardiologystudy from 2014 that we cited was a long-term review of how running impacts cardiovascular health. More than 50,000 participants helped the journal paint a clearer picture of the “athlete’s heart,” as the study calls it. 

The researchers concluded that runners were less likely to die from heart disease than non-runners by an astounding rate of 45 percent. Other causes of death affected runners less often too, as their mortality rate was 30 percent less than that of the group that didn’t run. 

Further, adults who run may have stronger hearts, says this 1985 Clinics in Sports Medicinedata. 

Running Builds a Stronger Immune System

Like many other parts of the body, with age, the immune system doesn’t work as well as it once did. This can lead to older adults getting sick more often as well as taking longer to recover than they did in their earlier years. 

Considering the immune system is comprised of organs, tissue, and cells, it makes sense that your immunity weakens over time. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways older adults can prioritize their health and thus their immunity. Some of these methods include maintaining a healthy diet, avoiding smoking, getting vaccinated when necessary, controlling stress, and exercising.

Seattle Marathon, a running organization, mentions an uncited study where runners underwent blood tests and then exercised for three hours. They were tested again post-run. The blood tests revealed the runners’ hormone levels and white blood cell counts. White blood cells are crucial in combatting infection and illness so you can stay healthier.

The runners had more white blood cells while running, then a slight decrease in the white blood cell count post-run. A full 24 hours after their run, all levels went back as they were before. Seattle Marathon sums up the results of the study thusly: “There is a relationship between the intensity and duration of runs and immune function.”

According to them, a “moderately intense” run for about an hour at an even pace could be enough to manifest the above benefits. Be aware though that over-training, besides being difficult for older adults, can worsen immune health. 

Running Tones Lower Body Muscles

We’ve touched on it a few times already, but now it’s time to cover what aging does to your muscles. The muscle fibers, which are within your muscle tissue, get smaller. Muscle tissue turnover slows down, and the tissue that is there can be become rough, leading to boniness in some parts of the body.

The muscles cannot contract with ease anymore because of the muscle fiber textural change, which means your muscle tone slowly but surely vanishes. So too does muscle mass due to age-related atrophy. This atrophy can affect your lean body mass overall, often making older people slimmer.

Although most of this muscle loss is inevitable, you don’t have to sit idly by while your body degrades. If anything, a sedentary lifestyle will only make the loss of muscle more accelerated. Training your muscles keeps them active and strong. 

Running requires the use of muscles across your lower body, including the abdominal muscles, glutes, tibialis anterior, hip flexors, peroneals, hamstrings, deltoids, shoulders, and calves. Admittedly, your upper half isn’t worked to the same extent as your lower-body muscles when you run, but even that’s fixable. 

Using weights during your run, especially hand or wrist weights or wearing a weighted jacket may allow you to activate your upper-body muscles. Exercise outside of running, including light strength-training, can also be useful.  

Running Helps Brain and Memory

Brain cells degrade throughout your life, which is known as brain atrophy. Injury and disease can speed up the loss of brain cells, putting you at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. Older adults may have difficulty reading, comprehending, and sometimes even speaking as cerebral atrophy worsens. These symptoms can later lead to dementia, a heart-wrenching disease.

Women’s Running, in a 2020 article, shared a wealth of studies on the topic of running and brain health/memory. One was from the American Academy of Neurology with 206 participants. They exercised regularly for six months. 

At the end of that period, all the participants had a brain blood flow uptick of 2.3 percent. This improved their verbal fluency by 2.4 percent and their ability to do well on executive function tests by 5.7 percent.

Granted, we don’t know the ages of the participants, but this study does show that running can have a positive effect on the brain. Marc Poulin, the leader of the study, says that vigorous exercise was needed for the benefits to occur. This rate of exercise encouraged more blood flow to the parts of the brain that manage one’s mental sharpness and memory.

A second study mentioned in the Women’s Running article from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease lasted for a year. This time, the participants did aerobics for that long of a period. All had better memory after the study, sometimes by as much as 47 percent when scored on memory. 

Even more promising is that the participants already had some form of memory issue, which shows that even in older age, maintaining and improving one’s memory through running is possible. 

Tips for Running in Your Later Years

Whether you’re getting up there in years or you have a dear loved one who is, you see now what running can do for your immunity, memory, joints, muscles, bones, and heart. You’re eager to begin a running regimen, but before you do, make sure you read these tips. They’ll keep you safe on every run! 

Always Stretch Before You Run

Long gone are the days when you could forget to stretch and not experience pain during physical activity. In your later adult years, whether you’re running or doing any other form of exercise, you must always start your routine by stretching your body. 

Don’t just focus on your legs, but other muscles as well, such as the back, core, and arms. If you’ve worked up a bit of sweat by stretching–which can happen–make sure you take a break for a few minutes before you start running. This isn’t a race, so there’s no need to do too much too fast. 

Don’t Push Yourself 

More so than ever before, listening to your body is paramount. If you feel dizzy, sick, or something hurts, it’s time to stop running for a few minutes to figure out what’s going on. Older adults tend to have balance issues as well, so if you’re unsteady on the trail, taking a break is also warranted.

Trying to run 10 miles at a clip may be too much anymore, so it’s time to set goals more realistic to your skill levels and ability as an older adult. Perhaps you strive to run five miles instead, or maybe you run 10 miles over two or three runs rather than one. 

You can still have fun with running and even smash some records of yours, but you have to do so smartly. 

Rest Time Matters More Than Ever

You can remember when you would run five days a week back to back to back. That probably won’t happen anymore. For each day you run, you need to take at least one rest day. If it’s two days between runs, then so be it. 

Even running twice or thrice a week is still beneficial, so don’t feel like you need to be out there on the trail nearly every day anymore. It just may not be possible. 

If you still want to exercise on your off days, you don’t necessarily have to run. Try taking a walk on your favorite trail instead, as this is much less strenuous. You can also do a bit of yoga, but keep it light.

Final Thoughts

Running in one’s later adult years won’t be the same lightning-fast type of exercise it once was. Even still, there are plenty of reasons to keep it up even if you don’t run as quickly or as far anymore. You can help your heart, your bones, and your brain stay healthy so age is nothing but a number! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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