From ancient times to today, running remains the most useful exercise

When it comes to cardiovascular exercise, running is in a class of its own.
It's a sport that has survived the millennia — the oldest and once only Olympic event was the sprint — but its practical benefits date back to prehistoric times, National Geographic reported. 
"In order to hunt and survive, humans had to develop the ability to run millions of years ago, so it's ingrained in us as a species," says Alyssa Olenik, an exercise physiologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. . 
"Over the centuries, it has become one of the most popular and accessible sports worldwide for both elite athletes and ordinary people," she said. 
Today, about 50 million Americans regularly engage in this activity, which appeals to young and old alike and is almost as popular among women as among men.
"Across all age groups, running helps improve cardiovascular fitness and reduce overall mortality, regulate weight, improve bone density, muscle strength and coordination, as well as reduce stress and improve mental health," says Daniel Ponzio, an orthopedic surgeon at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and a co-author of the running-related research.
While running isn't for everyone—people with certain conditions may need to do non-strenuous exercises such as swimming—it's a sport that brings benefits to participants today, as it would help runners in antiquity.

Unprecedented benefits for the cardiovascular and respiratory systems

The most consistently researched benefit of running is improving heart health. This is achieved in part by making the heart a "stronger and more efficient pump," says Alison Zelinski, a cardiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and co-director of the sports cardiology program at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. She explained that a stronger heart muscle improves cardiac output, a scientific measure of how much blood the heart can pump in one minute, which is used by healthcare professionals to assess the strength and efficiency of a patient's cardiovascular system. 
Zelinski added that running also affects the autonomic nervous system -- the body's network responsible for regulating involuntary physiological processes like digestion and breathing -- by lowering resting heart rate. This is important because studies show that every 10 beats per minute increase in resting heart rate is associated with a 16 percent increase in mortality risk.
Such cardiovascular improvements are among the reasons why the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes running as a "high-intensity" activity, the health agency's highest rating of aerobic exercise.
Running has also been shown to improve circulation by inducing "beneficial changes in blood vessels, including increased capillary density and improved endothelial reactivity -- something known as vasodilation," Zelinski explained.
Studies show that running also improves lung capacity and performance. This is achieved in part by improving the maximum rate at which a person can use oxygen, a measure known as VO2max. That measurement reflects the maximum amount of oxygen-rich blood a person can pump from their heart and deliver to their muscles to power movement, Olenick said.

A longer and better life

This has a direct link to improving all-cause mortality, as "even a small increase in VO2max can lead to significant improvements in long-term health," Olenik says. But that's just one of the many longevity markers associated with running.
A landmark 15-year study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, found that running for even 5 to 10 minutes a day increased life expectancy by three years. Dak-Chul Lee, study co-author and professor of physical activity epidemiology in Iowa State University's College of Human Sciences, says these benefits are achieved in part because "running reduces the risk of many diseases and conditions, including coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes".
Another longitudinal study found that runners had a 39% lower mortality rate and less physical disability than non-runners. Running is also associated with lowering LDL cholesterol levels and improving blood pressure.

Activity is beneficial for muscle growth and increasing bone density, which is especially important for older people.
"As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass and bone density," Ponzio said, "and exercise like running is an effective way to counteract these losses." 
In fact, one study shows that long-distance running in particular increases biomarkers of bone formation.
Because of these and other related benefits, "running can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and arthritis," said Austin "Ozzie" Gontang, a clinical psychotherapist and director of the Marathon Clinic in San Diego, California.
Healthy weight management is another quality of life benefit associated with running. One reason for this is that running at even a moderate pace of five miles per hour (many runners run at over 12 miles per hour) burns 590 calories per hour for a 154-pound person, which is more than any other physical activity, including from swimming, lifting weights, cycling or playing basketball. 
Also helpful is that running increases energy expenditure and speeds up metabolism, helping the body metabolize fat and carbohydrates "both during exercise and after meals," she said. 
Similarly, running has been shown to help with healthy blood sugar regulation.

Mental health benefits 

The mental health benefits of running are no less intriguing. "Running can be solitary, but often has a social component, whether it's running with a friend or participating in a running club or virtual community," said Carmel Choi, a clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. 
"This contributes to emotional benefits by reducing isolation and increasing feelings of support and motivation," added Choi. 
Being active can also help with depression. Choi points to a recent study that found that people with depression who started running regularly "recovered at rates similar to those taking antidepressants." She publishes supporting research and notes that her team estimates that if someone replaces just 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running each day, they can "reduce the risk of depression by as much as 26%." Part of the reason for this is that running releases "feel-good hormones like endorphins and dopamine, which are associated with better mood, reduced stress, and even 'runner's high,'" Choi explains.
In addition to helping a person feel better, running has been linked to improved cognitive function. "Running can stimulate brain function, improving memory and learning ability," says Gontang. He says this happens because running increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the production of a molecule known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), "which promotes the growth of new neurons and protects existing brain cells."
Perhaps most compelling of all, there are very low costs and almost no barriers to entry associated with participating in this sport. "Running can seem intimidating because sometimes it seems like people need all the latest watches, gear, tools or shoes to participate, but people can just start with a road or trail near them, and often with things they already own," said Olenik.
To get started, start slowly and then work your way up to higher and higher levels of fitness.
"Try to facilitate increasing physical activity into your daily routine and within the context of daily activities you already do, such as parking a little further from the grocery store or taking the stairs at work," suggests Rajesh Vedanthan, physician and population health scientist at NYU Langone Health in New York. From there, he suggests taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood before trying to run and then run. 
Even after you get used to the movement, Lee suggests alternating laps with walking or jogging. Adopting proper form and posture is also recommended. "Keep your head straight and look forward as you run to align your spine," suggests Gontang. He also says it's important to keep your shoulders relaxed, elbows at 90 degrees and "avoid slouching."
Developing a running schedule, finding a running buddy (the family dog counts!), and setting realistic and measurable goals are additional ways to stay motivated and accountable. "The right type and shape of shoes is also important," advises Ponzio.
She recommends listening to your body, avoiding doing too much too fast, and changing the setting, terrain and destination. "Eventually sign up for some races because the adrenaline rush of being part of something bigger with a like-minded community is really that special," she says. "It keeps runners coming back for more"./BGNES