Distance May Be Key in Running's Health Benefits

Running is a good way to stay in shape, but long-distance runs may be particularly effective at keeping high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes at bay, a study suggests.

The survey, of more than 100,000 male and female runners, found that those who ran marathons were less likely to be on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.

The odds of needing those medications were related to the number of marathons a runner participated in each year — rather than the total number of miles run per year.

What's more, even among non-marathoners, those who included longer- distance runs in their routine were less likely to be on medication, according to findings published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

The results suggest that there is something particularly beneficial about distance running, said Dr. Paul T. Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, California.

"Too often, the headlines are about the rare heart attack that occurs during or immediately after the event," Williams told Reuters Health. "However, our results show that there appear to be important health benefits to training for a marathon, and running more marathons."

For the study, Williams used data from a national health study of more than 107,000 runners. About 30 percent of men and women in the study said they'd run a marathon in the past five years.

Most study participants were not on any medication for diabetes or elevated cholesterol or blood pressure. Still, the odds were especially low among distance runners.

Among men, Williams found, the odds of needing drugs for high blood pressure or cholesterol declined by about 15 percent for each marathon run per year — even with factors such as age, weight and diet considered. The chances of needing diabetes medication, meanwhile, dropped by half with each yearly marathon.

Among marathoners and non-marathoners alike, the odds of needing these medications declined as a runner's longest usual distance increased. That's good news for runners who may not be up for marathon training.

"The key advantage to marathon training may be the inclusion of longer runs are part of regular training," Williams explained. "Even among non-marathon runners, we found that runners who included longer runs each week had additional health benefits over those that didn't."