Good news for plodders

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, April 2015

More is not better, and actually, more could be worse, says one cardiologist.

Three years ago I started training for a 10K race only because a close friend asked me to be her running buddy. I’d previously always evaded recruitment to running, being particularly averse to exertion that sears the heart and lungs and turns perfectly normal legs into silly putty. And, at the end of all the torment, what do you have to show for it besides malodorous armpits and laundry?

I’ve always thrived on purposeful activity, having grown up on a farm where muscles are naturally toned while the work gets done. I like to see progress, and if my health and fitness are boosted in the meantime, that’s a wonderful bonus. In my own garden I’m happiest when I’m pruning, digging, composting and moving stuff around. This coming Friday my daughter and I are going to bag and bring home a few hundred pounds of horse manure for the flower beds. Already I’m feeling the thrill—but I digress.

The initial training for the running race was the hardest, in part because we were our own guinea pigs. My friend had previously done some running but I’d only ever chased after cows (long long ago) so my courage was fragile. Still, we stuck to the grind and I generously salved myself with the therapeutic oil of complaining, which has always worked well for me. After several weeks of walk-running at the local high school’s oval track, we graduated ourselves to the next level.

Out on the streets the running seemed easier and gradually we worked up to a six-kilometre jog three times a week. That’s been our routine for the last three years. We’re not speedy and don’t get too obsessed with times and performance. Once in a while we’ll go a bit further or run the lakes, but any more than that demands too much from the body and the timetable. 

Incredibly, it seems we’re doing exactly the right thing. A 2012 longitudinal study out of the University of South Carolina involving 52,000 participants concluded that the health benefits of running were greatest for those who ran no more than 32 kilometres a week at a gentle pace (about seven minutes per kilometre). These runners, slowpokes like us, saw a greater reduction in their risk of dying than participants who didn’t run at all and also those who ran faster and further. 

I wasn’t sure I’d read that right but Carl J. Lavie, a cardiologist and study co-author concluded, “These data certainly support the idea that more running is not needed to produce extra health and mortality benefits. If anything, it appears that less running is associated with the best protection from mortality risk. More is not better, and actually, more could be worse.”

A 2012 Danish study based on 27 years’ worth of data collected for the Copenhagen City Heart Study concurs. It found that women who jogged at a “slow or average pace” for just one to 2.5 hours per week lived, on average, 5.6 years longer than both their speedier and more sedentary peers. For men the gain was even more dramatic: 6.2 years. Said Peter Schnohr, a cardiologist and one of that study’s authors, “We can say with certainty that regular jogging increases longevity. The good news is that you don’t actually need to do that much to reap the benefits.”

This comes as propitious news for us plodders but it’s also generated a maelstrom of protest in the camp of robust running. That’s understandable, given these studies had serious limitations including measuring all-cause mortality without adjusting for irrelevant causes such as accidental death. And even if the data had been adjusted, lifespan is just one indicator of health and arguably not the best one.

The take-home message here is that a beneficial exercise routine appears to be within most people’s reach. Start with just a few steps and gradually add a few more. Move for health and fun rather than performance. Sneak it into your balanced lifestyle. Do it with a friend and once in a while share a coffee at the end of the road.

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is a writer, mother and Master Gardener. Her books include People in Transition and Ernie Coombs: Mr Dressup, and Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada (co-authored with J.P. LeBlanc).