A look back at some of the recent editions of this column reveals a decided tendency to cover topics related to the aging runner. Why this is, I have no idea – certainly I myself personally am not progressing in that direction. If anything, I seem to be regressing to a more youthful status, as signified by the resemblance of the top of my cranium to what it looked like immediately after I was born!
Be that as it may, for the rest of you unfortunate individuals who may be experiencing advancement in chronological terms, I’m happy to pass along some encouraging news that can be found in two recent studies examining the effects of running on the aging.
As I’ve noted in this space on several occasions, one of the most persistent myths about running is the belief that the “constant pounding” inevitably leads to early-onset of hip, knee, or spinal arthritis. And, as I have hopefully demonstrated (Articles #18, 73, and 77), there have been more than enough studies over the past couple of decades to put this erroneous notion to rest, yet it is still the #1 question I am asked by patients or acquaintances who learn that I sometimes traverse the tarmac.
Even better, a new study now suggests that running not only reduces the risk of developing joint arthritis, it may also reduce the increase in general muscle pain that is commonly associated with aging. Investigators at Stanford University [Arthritis Research & Therapy 2005, 7:R1263-R1270] studied the long-term (14 years) impact of running and other aerobic exercise on a large (866 subjects) sample of runners (492) and non-runners (374) on perception of musculoskeletal pain. Outcomes measures were based entirely on self-reported pain scales (as opposed to physical findings, x-rays, etc.). While all individuals experienced a general increase in muscle pain levels over the course of the study, the running group reported 25% less pain overall than the sedentary control group.
If that doesn’t seem like benefit enough, how about running to improve your brain power as you age? Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California conducted a study on the effects of running on aged mice [The Journal of Neuroscience, September 21, 2005, 25(38):8680–8685]. Among their findings was the greater number of new nerve cells produced in the hippocampus (a portion of the brain associated with learning) of the mice that voluntarily* ran on a wheel placed in their cages, compared to mice kept in cages without a wheel. These same fit mice also proved more adept at learning a new task; specifically, they were able to learn the location of a platform hidden in a pool of water and later find it even when the water was cloudy. The “lazy” mice could not remember the location of the platform. (Plus, they apparently didn’t want to even try because of their aching muscles!)
(*Interestingly, an earlier study found no significant improvement in the running animals’ learning abilities, but these mice were forced to run, as opposed to the exercise being “optional.” I have no idea why this might affect the outcome – perhaps the forced mice purposely flunked the test to spite the scientists?)
There have been other studies on humans that support these findings – at least the learning part. Somehow, it’s difficult to find people who will let their hippocampus be removed to see if there are fresh neurons to be found; the animal studies lend more credence to the notion that this may well be the case.
So there you have it – more ammunition for the on-going battle against those who refuse to believe that it’s a good thing to continue running on into the golden years.