Is Running for Fitness Safe for Seniors?

Is Running for Fitness Safe for Seniors?


The days of limiting senior citizens to chair exercises are over. Running for fitness is popular for all ages. We now see people over the age of 50 participating in athletic competitions like American Ninja Warrior, and many 5K races offer prizes in Masters categories for older adults.

There are people like Ed Whitlock, who at the age of 73 ran a marathon in 2:54:48. Then there is George Sperzel, who at age 63 has run over 100 competitive races since the age of 60. 

Dr. Michael Joyner, Mayo Clinic exercise physiologist and expert on aging athletes states the following: "A lot of concerns about age-appropriate exercise modalities have turned out to be more speculative than real over the years." Decades of research supports this position as elite older athletes demonstrate enhanced performance and are models of this new paradigm.

Whether you’ve just turned 40 or are over 60, you’re now encouraged to try new things that push your body to greater limits. This includes running for fitness, and you can do this even if you weren’t active in your younger years.


Running for Your Life

It may sound overly dramatic to say that you should run for your life, but research is showing that older adults who participate in vigorous activity at least a few times per week can extend their lifespan by more than five years.

According to a 2014 review article in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, "the deterioration we see with aging can be attributed to a more sedentary lifestyle instead of aging itself." 

Whether you are 30-years old or over 60, the benefits are the same. Here are just a few: reduced risks for heart disease and high blood pressure; increased bone density and muscle strength; and both psychological and mental health improvements.

Running is one of the best forms of vigorous exercise because it doesn’t require expensive equipment and you don’t need a lot of time to get the benefit. Even a 20- or 30-minute run will get your heart pounding and the sweat pouring.


Running for Fitness at Your Own Pace

Running at Your Own Pace

It’s easy to assume that you will maximize the benefits of running for fitness if you do it daily or at least five times per week, but research has proven this untrue. 

One study followed a group of participants for 30 years and found that the best results were enjoyed by those who ran three or four times a week at a slower pace. This means that you don’t have to train for a marathon or get your stiff joints racing every day of the week to benefit from running.

Two of the most important rules for preventing running injuries are to know your limits and to listen to your body. If you’re over the age of 40 and don’t have a long history of running for fitness, settling in for a slow jog and taking regular walking breaks could turn back the clock on your body without putting you at risk for painful injuries.

This often means completing run/walk intervals, where you gradually increase the amount of time that you spend running. There are interval running programs designed to train new runners with this method, but they aren’t all suitable for seniors. Look at the Couch to 5K program as a great example. While it was designed for beginners, you may still find it too intense when starting out. You can use this program as an example of how interval training works, but you should create your own program that caters to your current level of physical fitness.


What About Your Knees?

The biggest concern for many seniors is that running for fitness will wear down their joints and cause problems with their knees. It’s true that running places more pressure on your joints and ligaments because your feet are leaving the ground, but you don’t have to run like a high school track star. If you keep it to a slow, gentle run, you may find that you can run without injuring your knees or any other part of your body. 

Remember that important rule for preventing running injuries: Listen to your body. If something hurts, you should stop. Even if you have to start with a power walk and work your way up one 10-second running interval at a time, this is a great way to improve your health.

It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before you start running because they’re familiar with your medical history.


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I highly recommend the book, Running for Fitness, for anyone, at any age, who is interested in running -- whether you are just starting out or wanting to continue running into your sunset years. Owen Barder and David Knight have written this wonderful book that is great for beginners, would-be competitors, and experienced runners. --Bonnie Gabaldon, Bodies of Evidence


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DO NOT BEGIN ANY EXERCISE PROGRAM WITHOUT CHECKING WITH YOUR DOCTOR FOR ANY UNDERLYING CONDITION THAT MAY PREVENT YOU FROM DOING SO.


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