Running is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to get in a workout—no memberships or class fees are required and you don’t need to drive to the gym to do it.
But whether running is good or bad for you is often debated.
“The injury rates for running are not necessarily high, but they are real.”
Runners will tell you it’s great cardio and has plenty of heart and mental health benefits. Skeptics point to joint problems and muscle injuries that can come from frequently pounding the pavement.
So what do doctors say? Dr. Carlos Uquillas, an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in injury prevention at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, helps weigh the pros and cons of this age-old exercise.
Studies show that prolonged cardiovascular exercise, which includes running, is hugely beneficial to your health. Dr. Uquillas notes that running:
- Increases endorphin levels – Endorphins are your brain’s natural feel-good chemicals, which boost metabolism and provide a positive sense of wellbeing often referred to as a “runner’s high.”
- Enhances sleep – Better sleep improves metabolism, organ function, and physical and mental energy.
- Lowers risk of depression – Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions and it can make other illnesses worse.
- Improves bone density – This helps lower your risk for osteoporosis and broken bones, especially as you age
- Strengthens muscles – Running works several muscle groups, engaging your core and hip muscles, building your glutes and hamstrings, and reducing the risk of injury.
“I think the advantages of running are pretty clear,” Dr. Uquillas says.
“Overall, running is really beneficial to your health.”
“I tell patients that I’d much rather you wear out your knees than wear out your heart and lungs, because your knees are much easier to replace than your vital organs.”
Despite all these benefits, running still has its pitfalls. Those include:
- Putting stress on your back and joints, particularly the knees
- Exacerbating arthritis symptoms
- Increasing the chances of straining or tearing muscles
“The injury rates for running are not necessarily high, but they are real,” Dr. Uquillas says.
“It is not an activity without risk and as you age you have to take more precautions to minimize the risks.”
Whether you’re an occasional jogger, weekend warrior, or training for your hundredth marathon, Dr. Uquillas recommends taking these precautions when running:
- Hydrate properly before, during, and after running
- Wear proper footwear and replace shoes approximately every 400 miles
- Mix in low-impact cardio such as swimming, biking, or an elliptical to reduce the frequency of running
- Run on softer surfaces such as rubber tracks, smooth dirt paths, or asphalt—which are all less rigid than concrete (sand is soft, but its unstable surface can also lead to injuries, so exercising on the beach comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages)
- Start slow and increase activity by no more than 10% each week
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The bottom line
Running is filled with physical, mental, and emotional health benefits that have been scientifically proven. While running is not injury-proof, Dr. Uquillas says it’s far better than not being active at all.
“I tell patients that I’d much rather you wear out your knees than wear out your heart and lungs, because your knees are much easier to replace than your vital organs,” he says.
Dr. Uquillas says runners should keep their primary care doctor updated on their exercise routine and overall health—and then it’s up to each individual to decide what’s best for them.
“If you really love running and you can’t imagine not doing it, then it’s obvious the benefit outweighs the risk,” he says.
“If you hate running and you’re only running because someone is making you do it, then you have options. It really does become a risk-benefit analysis for each individual.”