The association between physical activity and health was recognized as early as the fifth century BC by the Greek physician Hippocrates, who wrote the following: “All parts of the body, if used in moderation and exercised in labors to which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy and well developed and age slowly; but if they are unused and left idle, they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.”
In recent years, moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, has been the focus of a great deal of exercise science and most exercise recommendations. The government’s formal 2008 exercise guidelines, for instance, suggest that people should engage in about 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. Almost as an afterthought, the recommendations point out that half as much, or about 15 minutes a day of vigorous exercise, should be equally beneficial.
Now a new study suggests that running for as little as five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely. The findings suggest that the benefits of even small amounts of vigorous exercise may be much greater than experts had assumed.
The new study, published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, was conducted by researchers from Iowa State University, the University of South Carolina, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and other institutions. These researchers turned to a huge database maintained at the Cooper Clinic and Cooper Institute in Dallas. For decades, researchers there have been collecting information about the health of tens of thousands of men and women visiting the clinic for a check-up. These adults, after completing extensive medical and fitness examinations, have filled out questionnaires about their exercise habits, including whether, how often and how speedily they ran.
From this database, the researchers chose the records of 55,137 healthy men and women ages 18 to 100 who had visited the clinic at least 15 years before the start of the study. Of this group, 24 percent identified themselves as runners, although their typical mileage and pace varied widely. The researchers then checked death records for these adults. In the intervening 15 or so years, almost 3,500 had died, many from heart disease. But the runners were much less susceptible than the nonrunners. The runners’ risk of dying from any cause was 30 percent lower than that for the nonrunners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45 percent lower than for nonrunners, even when the researchers adjusted for being overweight or for smoking (although not many of the runners smoked). And even overweight smokers who ran were less likely to die prematurely than people who did not run, whatever their weight or smoking habits.
As a group, runners gained about three extra years of life compared with those adults who never ran. Remarkably, these benefits were about the same no matter how much or little people ran. Those who hit the paths for 150 minutes or more a week, or who were particularly speedy, clipping off six-minute miles or better, lived longer than those who didn’t run. But they didn’t live significantly longer those who ran the least, including people running as little as five or 10 minutes a day at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile or slower.
Of course there have been other studies demonstrating this benefit. Early evidence strongly supported an inverse association between occupational and leisure time physical activity and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in men. The contribution of physical activity to health outcomes is independent even when the traditional cardiovascular risk markers and genetic factors are considered. Moreover, the degree of risk associated with physical inactivity is similar to and in some cases even stronger than the more traditional cardiovascular risk factors.
Similarly, more recent large cohort studies in women, including the Women's Health Study, the Lipid Research Clinics Research Prevalence Study, and the Women Take Heart Project, reported an inverse and graded association between increased physical activity and mortality. Some data even suggest that physical activity provides a greater degree of protection in women than men. In addition, a noteworthy finding was that sedentary women who became physically active between a baseline and a follow-up visit approximately 6 years apart had 32% and 38% lower all-cause and cardiovascular mortality rates, respectively, compared with women who were sedentary at both visits.
The most important lesson from this new study is that we need to move our bodies intensely and running is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to do this. One could also practice Yoga, swim or ride a bike. The key is to move. So do yourself a favor and take 5 minutes a day to move.