8 Ways That Running Improves Your Health

A woman runs solo on a trail in the woods

Exercise is essential to human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its guidelines for physical activity for the first time in a decade, recommending that adults from ages 18 to 64 should aim for a combination of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week. A combination of running or walking combined with regular strength training is an ideal way to meet these recommendations and build a healthy lifestyle.

Whether or not you feel it, running is in your bones. Literally. The human body is built to handle endurance running, from the shape of our feet to the length of our legs to our ability to sweat. These evolutionary factors mean your body is built to run, no matter your shape or size.

Whether you run for fun, for competition or to enjoy time in nature, running can make your body and mind healthier in a number of ways. If you need some extra motivation to get out the door, here are eight ways running can improve your health from head to toe.

1. Stress Relief

Health Row 3

There’s a reason why the runner's high is so powerful; it’s actually your body releasing serotonin, the happy hormone, that boosts your mood and lowers other stress-related hormones in your body. According to a scientific review from 2016, endurance exercises like running boost the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Both these hormones are important in regulating mood and stress in the body.

The review found that endurance runners have higher levels of serotonin in their brain than individuals who do not participate in aerobic exercise. This increased serotonin helps emotional processing and improves your ability to manage stress.

Another study from 2017 found the effects of running on the brain last long after your run ends. In a group of over 2,000 runners, researchers from the University of British Columbia concluded that the negative effects of stress were markedly diminished in individuals who participated in aerobic exercise every day compared to those who did not. Translation: running helps you de-stress and stay de-stressed. While everyone responds to stress differently, running can be a great way to conquer stress and get back your peace of mind, in addition to the many other health benefits that running offers.

2. Weight Maintenance

A woman runs with a face mask on

You don’t need to be a certain size or shape to be a runner. As with any aerobic exercise though, running can be a solid tool to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

A 2020 study from the University of Kentucky found that individuals with BMIs (body mass index) ranging from 25 to 35 experienced significant fat loss after participating in an aerobic exercise, like running, for six days per week for 12 weeks. The study also found that maintaining a healthy fat-to-muscle ratio is important for many other aspects of well-being, like heart health, joint health and hormone regulation, to name a few.

Running might also help you feel comfortable in your own skin and appreciate what your body is capable of, no matter your size or weight.

Lauren Ross, a registered dietician and trail runner from Houston, TX, shared her thoughts on body image and overcoming self-doubt as a runner in an email to Fleet Feet. “I'm not here for you to look at,” she says. “I'm here to see how far I can push my limits...What I look like doesn't impact my ability to do those things.”

3. Heart Health

Chronic heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for men and women of all age groups and ethnicities, according to the CDC, with about 655,000 Americans dying of heart disease every year.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: You can take control of your heart health by running as little as five to10 minutes per day, according to a 2014 study. Researchers found that in a group of individuals with BMI ranging from 25 to 35, running just five to 10 minutes per day at low speed had a 45 percent lower risk of death from heart disease than non-runners. That’s right, running just a bit every day can cut your risk of death from heart disease almost in half.

4. Improved Immune System Function

Health Row 2

In the age of pandemic, you may be more concerned than ever about keeping your immune systems healthy. Luckily, daily exercise, like running, can improve immune function by triggering anti-inflammatory responses in your body. The anti-inflammatory response gives your immune system the boost it needs to effectively fight off bacteria and viruses as you encounter them in your day to day life.

A study at UVA found that just 20 minutes of exercise per day results in an increase in white blood cells and antibodies, two important parts of our immune system that our bodies use to get rid of germs that might enter our bodies.

Another study performed in 2011 by Dr. DC Neiman, Professor and Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University showed that sick days for the common cold during a 12-week period in the winter or fall is reduced by 25 to 50 percent for people who exercise most days of the week. You can read more from Dr. Neiman about how to safely maintain an active lifestyle during the COVID-19 pandemic in our recent interview with him.

5. Healthy Social Connection

While running is often considered an individual sport, many people reap emotional and psychological benefits from the communities they build around running. Running with others can help you reach your goals, keep you motivated and provide meaningful connections with your family and friends.

Even through times of required isolation, there are still plenty of ways to connect with others. Find your running community online through virtual races and join in friendly competition; you can even use a running habit to help others through virtual races like Run Across America, which supports Feeding America’s mission to alleviate hunger in the United States.

Social apps like Strava help you connect with friends, local groups and strangers alike to support one another as you run. The app allows you to track all your runs, rides and other workouts as well as see your friends activities and give “kudos.” Strike up some local competition by following a particular segment of a route and see who can run the fastest! You can even connect your Garmin watch to the app for easy fitness tracking.

6. Healthy Aging

Marathon Masthead 2020

Adding healthy habits to your life, like running, can help you age like a fine wine and even add years to your life.

A 2018 study from Ball State University at the Human Performance Laboratory by Dr. Scott Trapp showed that in a group of 75-year-old men and women, those who exercised regularly had the cardiovascular health of a 45 year-old. The same study also found that those same 75-year-olds had the muscular health of a 25-year-old.

This study and many others like it show that running actually makes your body seem younger. And it’s never too late to start exercising. According to cardiologist Dr. Ben Levine (UT Southwestern Medical), exercise can reverse some signs of aging in individuals up to 65 years of age.

7. Improved Sleep

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 35 percent of Americans are sleep deprived. Are you one of them? If you are (and even if you’re not) you’re in luck. Exercise, specifically aerobic exercise like running, is shown to dramatically improve the quality of your sleep.

The American Psychological Association published an article in 2014 emphasizing the whole-body health impacts of a good nights’ sleep, such as improved immune function, better memory, and decreased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and depression.

A 2014 scientific review from the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that, “aerobic exercise training in a sample of older adults with insomnia significantly improved sleep quality while also reducing daytime sleepiness and depressive symptoms.”

Incorporating running into your daily routine can not only lead to a better night’s sleep, but also improved overall health.

8. Joint Health

If you have been told, “running destroys your knees,” there is evidence to the contrary.

A recent study conducted in 2016 at Brigham Young University by Dr. Robert Hyldahl found running appears to reduce the presence of inflammatory molecules in the knee joint, as it promotes the movement of joint space serum. Hyldahl studied a group of recreational runners who ran for 30 minutes each and found their knees were less inflamed than before they ran.

In summary, running refreshes the cells within your knee joints and promotes blood flow that carries the nutrients those cells need to keep your joints healthy and working longer.

By Sarah Moxham. Sarah has run competitively for over 12 years. When she isn't working as the Digital Copywriter for FleetFeet.com, she can be found nerding out over art and listening to True Crime podcasts.