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Jogging and running rank among the most popular forms of exercise in this country. But how fast and how long do you need to run to reap the cardiovascular rewards of this activity? A recent study suggests that for both questions, the answer may be less than you think.

“The main takeaway message is that running even just once a week seems to offer some cardiovascular benefits,” said Dr. Adam Tenforde, director of the Running Medicine Program at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. It’s heartening news for people who enjoy running but can’t do it more frequently, either for logistical reasons or health issues such as knee arthritis, he added. These findings might also inspire people who do brisk walking to add a few minutes of running to their exercise regimen.

The latest research

For a study published November 2019 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers reviewed data that looked at the links between jogging or running and the risk of death. Researchers pooled findings from 14 published studies that included a total of 232,149 people. Researchers tracked participants’ health for five-and-a-half to 35 years. Even small “doses” of running appeared to improve health and longevity. For example, even running just once a week, for less than 50 minutes each time and at a speed below 6 mph, had a benefit, according to the authors. Compared with no running, any amount of running was associated with a:

  • 30% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease
  • 23% lower risk of death from cancer
  • 27% lower risk of death from all causes.

Runners and their habits

Dr. Tenforde is careful to point out the inherent limitations of these so-called prospective studies, which ask people about their behavior and then track their health over time. Compared with people who don’t run, those who choose to run on a regular basis may have other behaviors that contribute to their heart health and longevity. Researchers try to adjust for these confounding factors, which include things such as dietary habits, body fat levels, and other physical activity. But not all the studies in this pooled analysis took all of those and other variables into account. For example, people who run fewer days per week may be doing other aerobic exercise, such as swimming or using an elliptical machine, on other days of the week, Dr. Tenforde said.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that each week, adults should get at least:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking), or
  • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity (such as running), or
  • a combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity equivalent to the above.

Many people don’t meet these recommendations. But doing at least a few sessions of aerobic activity per week is really important, not just for your cardiovascular health but also your overall well-being, said Dr. Tenforde. Even if you’ve never run before, there’s nothing inherently dangerous about starting later in life, he says. But talk to a doctor if you have heart disease or other health issues, especially if you haven’t been active recently.

Keep it simple, start slow

If you’re new to running, don’t worry too much about your technique. Despite what you may have heard, there’s no need to focus on striking the ground with your heel first or to coordinate your breathing with your foot strikes. Just do what feels natural, Dr. Tenforde said.

Start with a brisk walk, which for most people is a pace of about 3 to 4 mph. Then, try adding some short periods of running. Technically, you’re running if both your feet are off the ground simultaneously during a single gait cycle or stride. Although there’s no official definition of what constitutes jogging versus running, the oft-cited cutoff is 6 mph, which translates to a 10-minute mile.

According to some sources, that’s the average running speed for women. For men, the average pace is slightly faster — around 6.7 mph, or a 9-minute mile.

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