This week you might have caught the story doing the rounds with the sensationalist headline: ‘too much running could be as bad for you as no exercise at all.’
Headlines like this frustrate me for a number of reasons.
In the first instance, they pick up on one piece of research in isolation and then pull out the most controversial element, in this case ‘running is bad for you’, rather than the less sensational aspect, that regularly running is actually really, really good for you. Ok, ok I know that’s not news, but it’s more factual than the story with the catchy headline.
Secondly, in general we selectively choose to hear the narratives we want to hear, (I’m as guilty of this as anyone), and as such these headlines provide an apparent rationale for people with sedentary lifestyles to continue to be sedentary. I’m not insisting that everyone should run, but, rightly or wrongly, painting one type of exercise in a negative light tends to result in other forms of exercise being tarred with the same brush and with growing rates of obesity, weight related diabetes and lifestyle-linked cancers, the last thing we need are more excuses not to exercise.
When we dissect this particular study, (as Alex Hutchinson has done in his article), what becomes apparent is that small samples yield unreliable estimates. At the same time, what the reaction to it by the media and many commentators indicates is that perhaps we are all a little too quick to believe medical studies that tell us what we want to hear.
So what does the study actually say?
The findings, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, stated that the life expectancy of heavy-duty runners was as low as those who did no jogging at all.
Researchers tracked the progress of 1,098 healthy runners and 413 healthy but sedentary non-joggers for 12 years. They asked the runners about the speed, frequency and duration of their workouts, categorizing 878 of them as light, moderate or strenuous. Ten years later, the researchers checked government records to see how many of them had died.
Only 17 had. Good news for the surviving runners, less good for the researchers since 17 was clearly too few deaths to ascertain whether the risk of death was related to running intensity at all.
However, even with such a small sample, the study claimed that too much jogging was associated with a higher mortality rate. While the mortality rate was highest among those who ran the most and at the highest intensity, this was based on only 40 people who were categorised as ‘strenuous joggers’, among which only two died. So do two deaths add up to a statistically significant finding? I’m no expert but I’d be inclined to say no.
In fact, the sample is so small as to be ridiculous; as Alex Hutchinson wrote in his assessment of the study, ‘thank goodness a third person didn’t die, or public health authorities would be banning jogging.’
Moreover, the research doesn’t report the actual causes of death for these two ‘strenuous runners’ so there is no evidence to suggest that they were caused by anything related to running at all.
Further analysis of the results of the study can be viewed in the previously cited articles, however, what none of this addresses is the role that running can play beyond increasing (or decreasing) life-expectancy.
Running is not just about exercise. It’s a lifestyle choice which feeds into your physical and mental wellbeing.
Running gives us energy and vitality. It makes us happy. It promotes discipline and keeps us motivated, providing a regular sense of achievement. Running offers opportunities to meet and spend time with other runners, or to take some time out for yourself. It allows you to explore new cities, discover new routes and embrace the world, in all seasons.
For me personally, running has also changed the way I feel about my body and what it can achieve. I look at my body now as a machine that needs to be looked-after and well-fuelled, not critiqued and starved. I embrace the curves of the muscles that have developed through running and the strength in my thighs and bottom (rather than worrying about how big they are).
With all that running offers to me and contributes to my quality of life, the issue for me is quality over longevity. Although I’m still convinced that running offers both.