“The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it.”
Joan Rivers, on jogging
Running has been thought of as “good for your health” for a few decades now. The last couple years, however, a rash of studies and research questions the belief/assumption that running is healthy. In fact, many researchers, doctors and health practitioners are warning against running, claiming it contributes to overall body deterioration, including moderate to severe damage to important joints (hips/knees/back) and vital organs (brain/heart).
Not surprisingly, when it comes to running (and exercise in general), I feel we have once again fallen victim to trying to generalize and oversimplify a very complicated, individualized and yet to be understood concept. In the world of health, time and time again this has proven to be a very problematic approach.
Is running, as we practice it, good for us? Is it really the health promoting activity so many people think it is? Or could it be misconsidered? Is it actually a touch unhealthy and (potentially) quite dangerous, particularly when done wrong?
Not only does the truth appear to lie somewhere between the two extremes, there’s also quite a bit we don’t consider when it comes to running. If we do take a step back and reevaluate things it may help us wrap our arms around the true nature of this very old and basic human behavior…
Humans have been running out of necessity for a long time, tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of years. We have been running out of choice, as “exercise”, for only about 40 years. This means we really have no idea if running, in the way we now treat it, is good or not.
Like everything else in health, you are probably aware of how I feel when people say we “know” something to be true or not true. Running is no exception, despite what anyone might say.
We consider it to be true that regular body movement/activity is good.
We are also pretty sure lots of low intensity walking is a good thing and that occasional, quick, intense sprinting or physical work is good for us. What we really aren’t sure about is the middle ground: running.
Do people appear to gain or keep health when running? Yes, sometimes, maybe often. Does everyone benefit from running or does running always help? Not even close. Some people end up worse off and damage their health from running.
Why such a discrepancy? Probably a couple of reasons…
Running itself might actually be a damaging activity. Some people might be able to handle it while others can’t. This is what people are trying to figure out. The problem in trying to figure that out is that we can’t quite define what running is. When does jogging become running? When does running become sprinting? Running for some isn’t running for others. What if you walk a while, jog a while, run a bit, sprint a couple times, run a bit and then walk a while. Is that considered “running” or is it something different? Or what about running during a sport like soccer or basketball? I suppose we could try to quantify running but how can we expect that to be appropriate to everyone and across situations? We can’t and that’s a big problem.
Similarly, determining the dose for running, particularly when we start thinking about related variables, is really tricky. What’s too much? What’s too long? Too often? Too fast? Too sloppy? Too much other exercise along with it? Too much sitting during the rest of the day? Too much other stress? Not enough sleep? Poor enough diet to not support it? Not enough muscle regeneration to repair before running again? Not enough enjoyment from it? Too much pushing through pain or cues to stop? Not enough athletic history to support it? Too many injuries? Bad shoes? And on and on…
The end result is that when we look at all the variables across all humans we don’t know if running is good for us. So what do we do to figure this running thing out? Like always, let’s take a step back…
History, science and common sense tell us that moving our bodies is good for us and that walking is natural for our species and likely a prerequisite for health. When we move up to jogging is when we start getting a little hazy. Although we may have jogged out of necessity (hunting, battle, hurrying somewhere), we also were active in general, particularly before the dawn of overwhelming industry and technology, humans have only been jogging as exercise for a few decades. Now, people jog for an hour as part of a mostly sedentary life that includes a lot of sitting and they may have been completely inactive since childhood. Probably because of this lifestyle factor, it appears that most people benefit from a little jogging and feel better with some light running, especially if it’s done right, meaning proper periodization and buildup. Unfortunately it’s very common that people will start jogging only to stop soon after, usually due to injury or boredom* (keep that in mind). Nonetheless a small percentage of the population, ~10%, jog regularly and feel better because of it.
Moving into running is when even fewer people benefit, particularly long term. Injury, boredom and poor training are the most common problems and only a small percentage of people keep running for the long term.
Endurance running moves into an even smaller success pool, as only a minute portion of humans are able to withstand this unnatural challenge to the body. Even these survivors are starting to be studied as victims as more and more of them are found with heart disease, heart damage and other brain and cardiovascular deterioration.
Think of all the people you know. How many have been running consistently for more than 5 years? 10 years? 20? 30?
And how many of those are injury free?
The number gets smaller and smaller because the percentage of people who can handle the physical and mental challenge of running is so small. It’s common to consider these runners to be the “tough” ones, that are able to stay dedicated enough to stick with it? It’s a remarkable achievement. So many times I have heard, “oh I wish I could be a runner…” or some similar envious comment. Are these people to be commended for their perseverance or simply considered to be someone who found their niche and developed it? Or are they simply the ones lucky enough to be able to survive all that running? My money is on one of the latter. I think some people are just built to withstand running. The rest of us either survive it (some better than others) or are beaten by it. Hopefully, those beaten by running might start to realize that they’re not losing by not being a runner.
Some Thoughts on Running
Is it possible that all that running strengthens the heart and lungs in the short term but wears them out over the long term? Or is the diet necessary to fuel all that running problematic? Or both? Or something else?
What if running gets some people in great shape, but they would have gotten into great shape doing anything active? Or they would have gotten in better shape by running but in different and often less amounts?
Here is another thought: people, adults really, just might not be in the shape to run. Particularly all the people of newer generations that aren’t as active as kids and didn’t establish a decent physical foundation when they were young.
What do kids do?
Kids don’t run. They walk, sprint and skip. That’s about it. When they get tired they rest, they don’t keep running just to log another mile or 10 more minutes.
What do other cultures do?
They walk mostly and run if there’s a specific reason to, such as hurrying, fighting or hunting. That’s it. The only running that happens in the natural world are limited to a few tribes that run out of necessity, and often it’s less running and more segmented walking and jogging.
Run for fun?
Boredom is the brain’s way of protecting us from things that are unproductive and pain is the way to prevent us from things that are damaging.
If you find running to be boring or painful (or both) I would suggest rethinking how you’re approaching it. It might not be the healthy activity it’s purported to be for you or you might need to adjust your treatment of running.
Wrapping Up Running
For those runners out there, this isn’t meant to lessen what you do and accomplish. This thought development is meant to open up potentially closed minded opinions on running. If running makes you feel good and you get something out of it (particularly if you run outside), keep doing your thing. If you run through pain or force yourself to run for some reason (like its “good” for you), make sure you think about what you’re doing. Not running is ok and isn’t a knock to your character or human value if you don’t.
Personally, I don’t mind running. It can be fun to do and I’m decent at it. But I think we have fallen victim to group think when it comes to running. It’s not a badge of honor to be a runner and it’s certainly not for everyone. Running successfully over the long term is likely a sign of good fortune and determination. Being a runner doesn’t guarantee health. It might make you healthier or it might not. It’s up to you and time to decide.
The Finish Line
I think we all need to walk. I think most of us can and should jog every once in a while and try to sprint every once in a while as well. I think some of us should run occasionally and very few of us should run often. I don’t know if anyone should be running all the time. That’s a select population and I would guess that even a majority of those mega runners aren’t really being smart about listening to their body and most of them are doing as much damage as benefit by running so much.
The bottom line is that I don’t think running, per se, is healthy or makes you healthy. I think varied and regular activity and movement makes you healthy. The more specific your exercise and the more you do it the less likely it is to be good for you and the more likely it is to be potentially harmful. This means anything, lifting weights, golfing, spinning/bicycling, etc.
Kudos for people being active, getting outside and running. Let’s just keep this whole running thing in perspective. Hopefully this can serve as food for thought if nothing else. Keep running if you want but rethink your running if anything above gives you reason to reevaluate the role running plays in your life.
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
P.S. Just came across this today:
Well-Regarded Endurance Athlete Chad Denning Dies While Running Appalachian Trail
P.S.S. Running is likely U curve activity: a little is better than none and adding more equals better results up to a point where it ceases to benefit you and adding more simply makes it worse. Don’t fall prey to classic western thinking where if a little of something is good than more is better and much more is even better and as much as possible is best.