Even a little running protects you from heart disease and cancer death

This winter, two new studies suggest a positive effect of running on heart health.


A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine at the end of last year showed that any amount of running lowers the risk of death from any cause, cardiovascular disease (which includes heart attacks and strokes), and cancer. It suggests that there could be substantial improvements in the health of the population if more people took up running – and the good news is that you don’t have to run fast or far. 

Researchers pooled the results of all the available evidence looking into running and death from any cause. The studies included 232,149 people in total whose health had been tracked for between 5.5 and 35 years. The researchers found that any amount of running was linked to a lower risk of death from all causes (during the length of the studies) when compared to no running. Running was linked to a 30% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 23% lower risk of death from cancer. 

Even a little running helped. People who went for a run once a week or less, for less that 50 minutes and slower than 6 miles (8km) an hour, had health benefits.

The Government recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, and this study suggests that even less that this is better than nothing. This is especially good news for those who are short on time. Surprisingly, ‘upping the dose’ by running more was not associated with extra benefit.

This is an observational study so can’t prove cause and effect, and the numbers in the studies were small, which limits the importance of this study. 

The authors concluded: “Increased rates of participation in running, regardless of its dose, would probably lead to substantial improvements in population health and longevity.”  

Read the article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Running takes years off your blood vessels and lowers blood pressure

This January, another study also supported the benefits of running, showing that, for very committed runners, training for a Marathon lowers blood pressure and reduces stiffness in the arteries.

Scientists based in London and Italy used a scan to measure the stiffness of the aorta – the main artery that carries blood from the heart around the body – in 138 people who had never run a Marathon. They also measured their blood pressure. After six months of running training at least three times per week, and completing the Marathon, a repeat scan and blood pressure tests were done. The results showed that their arteries were less stiff – considered the equivalent of four years younger – and their blood pressure was 3-4mmHg lower on average. 

Exercise is known to lower arterial stiffness and blood pressure, which both tend to rise with age, and this study adds support to the evidence. Interestingly, the effects of the running training were strongest in older adults and people who ran the Marathon at a slower speed. 

The study was short term, so could not explore how the running training affected the participants’ health in the long term. There was also no control group made up of people who did not take part in the training, which would be the ideal way to examine the effects of the running training. In addition, more people were enrolled in the study but did not complete it – just over half completed it – showing that training at this intensity is not doable for everyone. 

Read more about this study in NHS Behind the Headlines 

Hemini Bharadia, Marketing Manager at Blood Pressure UK, says:

“These two studies support running and exercise more broadly as an excellent way to look after your heart health. You don’t have to take on a Marathon to lower your blood pressure and look after your arteries, and you don’t have to pick running as your chosen exercise. Go for the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week and pick running, cycling, swimming, or a sport like tennis – just something to get your heart rate up. 

“It’s encouraging to note that even a little running helps, and that older people and slower runners had the most benefit in the Marathon study. It just goes to show it’s never too late to start, and you don’t have to be a great runner.” 

Want to get more active? 

Have a look at Couch to 5K, to get you running 5K in just 9 weeks.

Find out more about exercise and blood pressure and read our booklet about a healthy lifestyle.