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Does Running Really Age Men Prematurely?

Despite recent claims made by researchers from the University College London, running probably won’t increase your vascular age or damage your heart. If anything, as always previously thought, it’s probably the exact opposite

Running objectively sucks, especially when you’re bad at it. Sure, you get all those fun endorphins and it’s good for your overall health, but is that really worth becoming a hot, sweaty mess or risking shitting yourself for? Absolutely not. 

So when a recent study that conveniently suggests running may increase men’s vascular age up to 10 years was recently making the rounds, many die-hard walkers were excited. But there are a few red flags with the research that indicate the findings might be too good to be true. 

For one, the only record of the research is a press release, and the study itself doesn’t appear to be published in or linked to any peer-reviewed journals. According to the release, the experiment was conducted by University College London and the British Heart Foundation. Still, surveys that aren’t published in academic journals usually operate with some level of transparency by making their methodology publicly available, which these researchers did not do. Despite claiming to have previously developed a way to calculate vascular age, the study authors didn’t explain how this worked beyond that it was based on the stiffness of arteries, because stiffer arteries have been associated with increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in non-athletes.

In any case, they claimed to have analyzed data on 300 “master athletes” who were 40 and older and had taken part in 10 or more endurance competitions over the past decade. Of these, half were men and half were women.

The results indicated that for older male athletes across the board, their aortas were supposedly stiffer and up to 9.6 “years older” than their chronological age. In contrast, female athletes had aortas that matched their real ages. When the researchers also examined the vascular age of different sections of the aorta, they found the greatest age discrepancy in the descending aorta. Again, for male athletes, this was 15 years older than their chronological age, compared to female athletes, who’s descending aortas were about 6 years older on average. 

University College London and the British Heart Foundation didn’t respond to my requests for comment. But sports chiropractor Grant Radermacher, who works with endurance athletes daily and wasn’t involved in the study, confirms that the findings are most likely bullshit. “The new study contradicts basically every previously published study on cardiovascular health in endurance athletes,” he explains. 

For example, research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that after a six-month marathon training program, participants experienced improvements in their central blood pressure and aortic stiffness “equivalent to a four-year reduction in vascular age,” Radermacher notes. “It didn’t matter the participants’ sex, age or relative exercise intensity, either. In fact, greater rejuvenation was observed in older, slower individuals.”

That said, a meta-analysis of multiple studies shows that long-term endurance runners can experience “recurrent myocardial injury” that typically repairs itself with rest, but in some cases can put runners at risk for “atrial and ventricular arrhythmias.” However, the researchers concluded that “not all veteran extreme endurance athletes develop pathological remodeling, and indeed lifelong exercisers generally have low mortality rates and excellent functional capacity.”

So for now, whether you like it or not, running continues to be good for you. But if scientists ever prove that sitting on the couch works as a fountain of youth, we’ll gladly — and widely — share the results.