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This article—dedicated to the topic of running—is the seventh in our Exercise series.


It’s an exercise classic.

For decades, running in all its forms (fast, slow, long or short) has emerged as an all-time favorite.

There’s a good reason for that.

It’s easy.

It’s accessible to everyone.

All you need to do is grab your running shoes…and go.

Today I’d like to review the health benefits of running.

And why running as little as 5 minutes a day could add years to your life.

Only 5 Minutes…

While the US 2008 exercise guidelines suggest that people do moderate exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week, they add (almost as an afterthought) that you can get the exact same benefits with vigorous exercise in half the time, i.e. 15 minutes.

The idea that a little bit of vigorous exercise can be incredibly beneficial for your health was confirmed in a new, large-scale research study (55,000+ adults over 15 years) examining exercise and mortality.

In the study, researchers discovered that running as little as 5 minutes a day at slow speeds can significantly lower your risks of dying prematurely from all causes or cardiovascular disease.

Interestingly, the findings about running are similar to what we discussed in our HIIT article—i.e. that small amounts of vigorous exercise can reap huge health benefits.

Specifically, the groundbreaking study discovered that runners (versus non-runners) were 30% less likely to die from any cause and 45% less likely to die from heart disease. In total, runners gained 3 extra years of life compared with non-runners.

More shocking?

Even runners who were overweight and smoked were less likely to die prematurely than non-runners!

But that’s not all.

The study also found that the health benefits associated with running remained constant no matter how much people ran. So whether the runners ran fast and hard (150 minutes+ a week) or slow and sparsely (as little as 5 minutes a day), the health benefits were exactly the same.

The moral of the story? To tap into running’s health benefits, you do not need to train for a marathon (or even a 5K race!).

All you need to do is run as little as 5 minutes a day.

(Remember that if you do not enjoy running , you can switch activities. Jump rope. Vigorously pedal a stationary bike. Choose any other strenuous activity. Whatever you choose, that short five minutes of vigorous effort could add years to your life!)

What About Vigorous Exercise and Our Brains?

You probably already knew that running was good for you physically.

But did you know that it is also good for your brain?

For years, scientists have observed that the brains of people who regularly exercise are different than those who are sedentary.

Exercise appears to favor the generation and survival of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential for memory and learning.

This may happen (at least in part) because exercise helps the body make a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF), a protein scientists have nicknamed the ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain. BDNF helps neurons in the brain grow and thrive and allows the brain to function better by strengthening the synapses that connect neurons.

Conversely (and logically), low levels of BDNF have been associated with cognitive decline.

But while scientists knew that exercise encouraged the production of BDNF, until recently they had not understood exactly HOW.

The difference between physically active and sedentary people seems to be partly related to the presence of a type of ketone body (i.e. beta-hydroxybutyric acid). During strenuous exercise, the body depends on both sugar and fat for fuel and the breakdown of fat produces ketone bodies. This particular ketone body seems to loosen up a cluster of molecules, which surround the gene responsible for BDNF production.

In sedentary individuals with few ketone bodies, the molecules remain dense over the gene, making BDNF production difficult. In exercising individuals, the ‘blocking’ molecules do not seem to cover the entire gene, which allows it to get on with the important business of making BDNF.

In other words, exercise may unleash the production of BDNF, thus promoting brain health.

Antioxidants and Running

Another fascinating piece of research shows that ultramarathon runners generate so many free radicals during their runs that they actually damage the DNA of a significant amount of cells. However, studies also show that after a few days, the cells’ DNA is not just ‘back to normal’ but antioxidant defenses are increased.

In other words, the initial ‘negative’ free radical damage acts like a boost and ultimately cranks up the body’s antioxidant defenses in a positive way.

Additionally, scientists have also discovered that taking antioxidant supplements can actually interfere with this process while eating antioxidant-rich food or (or drinking tea) accelerates this positive exercise-induced antioxidant activity.

How to Begin

Here are 11 running guidelines so you can begin running today!

  1. Start! Talking about running is not the same as running. You just need to decide to begin.
  2. Check With Your Health Care Provider. It is always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting any type of exercise, particularly a vigorous one like running.
  3. Pick a Great Shoe. Obviously, one of the most important components of a safe, healthful run is to make sure you select the right type of shoe.
  4. Select Socks. Almost as important as shoe selection are your socks. Make sure they breathe and do not “suffocate” your feet. You might want to look for running socks that integrate a sweat-wicking material which draws moisture away from your feet, preventing bacteria from accumulating between your toes.
  5. Use the Run-Walk Method. The run-walk method is an excellent way for new runners to start and for experienced runners to improve their race times. Pioneered by Olympian Jeff Galloway, the technique allows you to take brief walk breaks as follows:
    • Beginners. Run for 10-30 seconds. Walk for 1-2 minutes. Rinse and repeat for the length of your run.
    • Intermediate runners. Run for 1-5 minutes. Walk for 1-2 minutes. Rinse and repeat for the length of your run.
    • Advanced runners. Run for 6-8 minutes. Walk for 30 seconds-1 minute. Rinse and repeat for the length of your run.
  6. Incorporate Your Run Into Your HIIT Training. Since running is one of the most convenient ways to exercise intensely, I personally like to incorporate running into my HIIT training. In other words, I do not isolate running but integrate it as yet another type of short, vigorous exercise that embraces the HIIT principles.
  7. Select a Training Schedule. You will want to select (and stick to) a training schedule. An example could be as follows:
    • Train for 3 days a week.
    • 2 days run or run/walk 15-30 minutes.
    • 1 day run or run/walk for a longer period of time.
    • Rest (or cross-train) on your ‘off days’.
  8. Hydrate. Make sure that you keep yourself hydrated before, during and after your runs.
  9. Create a Playlist. Music can be an important and helpful motivator. Make sure to pick your favorites and load them up on your phone before you set off.
  10. Choose a Timing Device. A timing device will help you track your progress run by run. There is a variety of choice on the marketplace. Your timing device can be a GPS watch, an activity tracker, a simple timer or the timer on your phone.
  11. Take It Slow. As we explained above, you do not have to become a marathon runner to enjoy the benefits of this sport.

According to a recent Danish study, the ideal amount of jogging for prolonged life was between 1 and 2.4 hours a week at a slow pace. Slower joggers tended to live longer than those who ran faster and more often—those who ran farther and faster did not enjoy additional benefits and were even shown to have the same lifespan expectancy as sedentary individuals.

In the end, if you exercise to improve life expectancy and long-term cardiovascular health, more is not always better.

So run.

But run in small doses.

And you will get all the health benefits associated with this exercise classic.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.