Researchers from Stanford University found that people over 50 who belonged to a running club were more than three times less likely to die during the 13-year study period and they were able to postpone disability by almost nine years on average.
"Those people who were exercisers lived longer and had lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer," says the study's lead author, Dr. Benjamin Wang, who is now an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
It wasn't just running that provided benefits. "Any form of aerobic exercise seemed to be beneficial," Wang says.
The study findings appear in the new issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The Stanford scientists compared a group of 370 members of a runner's club to a control group of 249 residents from the same community who were not involved in the running club. The volunteers were between 50 and 72 years old at the start of the study, with an average age of 59.
Not surprisingly, the researchers found the runners pursued healthier lifestyles. They smoked less, drank less alcohol and engaged more regularly in exercise. Community members reported more smoking, alcohol use and they had higher body mass indexes.
Members of the running club reported running an average of almost 26,000 kilometers in just over 11 years before the start of the study, while the community members reported running an average of 1,374 kilometers in 2.2 years before enrolling in the study.
The volunteers filled out yearly health-assessment questionnaires during the study period. The level of disability was assessed by having each volunteer rate his or her functional abilities in eight different activities: walking, reach, grip, rising, dressing and grooming, hygiene, eating and activities such as running errands. They would score each activity between "zero" and "three," with "zero" meaning they had no difficulty performing the task, and "three" signifying they couldn't do the task.
The members of the runner's club had significantly lower levels of disability than community members, delaying any significant disability by an average of 8.7 years. Any exercise showed a reduction in disability at some point during the study, but only moderate- to high-intensity exercise consistently reduced levels of disability.
The death rate for community members was 3.3 times higher than for runner's club members, according to the study. Also, men and smokers appeared to have an increased risk of death.
Because the runners reported running an average of 10.8 years before the study, Wang points out that these were "not all lifelong runners. Many began in mid-life. The implication is that it's never too late to begin exercising," he adds.
While agreeing that it's never too late to enjoy the benefits of exercise, Dr. Lewis Rosenbaum, a geriatric medicine specialist from William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., says he has some problems with the design of the study.
"If you take people who are engaged, disciplined exercisers, and compare them to most people, it's not a fair comparison," he says.
"These are go-getters," Rosenbaum says, adding that along with running, they probably have many more healthful habits, such as eating healthy foods. Most people, he says, can't maintain the kind of high-intensity exercise that running club members do.
But, he says, "People of all ages should be active to the extent their condition allows."
He recommends that seniors who would like to start exercising should join a group program at a health club or through a community organization. Some good activities to start with are low-impact aerobics or tai chi, he says.
If it's been a long time since you've exercised, or if you have health problems, it's wise to check with your doctor before you start any new exercise program, he adds.
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