One of the most reliable ways to fill the Health/Science section of the local newspaper is to report on research that finds a link between some specific activity and a longer life span. While it’s mildly interesting to point to a correlation between regular exercise and better overall mental and physical health, if you really want to get people’s attention, tell them they can live three years longer if they ride a unicycle to work on Fridays.
Of course, this applies to research on the health outcomes of running. Runners and non-runners alike want to know whether running helps people live longer. Runners, it must be said, have a rather unpleasant habit of gloating whenever a new study suggests that running extends longevity. “Hey, isn’t it great? We get to live longer than you!” As for non-runners, they pay attention to these studies as a way of assessing whether the benefit is great enough to be worth the bother, or whether it’s just a variation on that old joke: does exercise make you live longer? No, it only seems longer.
As for me, I almost always find something to dislike in these stories, even if the underlying research is sound. First and foremost, correlation doesn’t imply causation, so even if a study finds that people who run live longer on average than people who don’t, that doesn’t mean that running, per se, was responsible for the longer lives. Maybe the people who likely to run share some other habit or trait that makes all the difference.
Another thing that bothers me is that in these studies, running is almost always viewed as a means to an end (longer life), and rarely if ever as an end in itself that adds to the quality of life. The value of increased longevity depends on what you’re doing with those extra years.
Anyway, I was reminded of all this on Wednesday when I saw a post by Gretchen Reynolds on the New York Times “Well” blog (Running Just 5 Minutes a Day Has Long-Lasting Benefits). Reynolds was reporting on a recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that looked through data from the Cooper Institute and found a correlation between running as little as five minutes a day and longer life expectancy.
Reynolds summarizes the study thusly:
“Running for as little as five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely, according to a large-scale new study of exercise and mortality. The findings suggest that the benefits of even small amounts of vigorous exercise may be much greater than experts had assumed.”
I immediately had two questions about this research:
- What mechanism is proposed that could be activated by such a small amount of exercise and have such a profound effect?
- Who the heck runs for five minutes a day?
The first question tries to take the next step in understanding whether it’s the running (or similar vigorous exercise) that’s really responsible for the observed effect. The study doesn’t prove that. It only observes a correlation.
The second question is more vexing: why does anyone in their right mind go to the trouble of heading out the door for a run, suffer through the painful process of limbering up, and then almost immediately stop. Who are these coffee break warriors? Even supposing they exist, don’t they get fitter over time and graduate to 10 minutes a day? I mean, I just can’t picture anyone taking the time to put on shorts and running shoes, find and strap on their GPS watch, grab their iPod and set it to play the Bon Jovi mix, stretch for a few minutes, head out the door, and then be back in less time than it takes to make a sandwich.
I suppose 5 minutes a day could be an average, and the people included in that category actually ran 35 minutes once a week, or acquired the 35 minutes in a couple of runs. I can picture that. But running an average of 35 minutes a week and running 5 minutes a day are NOT equivalent, so at a minimum the title of the story is misleading.
It all brings me back to my long-standing complaint about seeing running as merely a means to some desired benefit. Running is (or should be) its own benefit. You get to run! Out there, in the actual world! For goodness’ sake, don’t stop after five minutes — keep going!
And as for me personally, I’d like to think that I value running more highly than as some kind of voucher that can be redeemed for bonus extra time when I’m 78. In fact, I like to think that if I were presented with the choice straight up, I’d give a few years for the guarantee that I’d be able to run comfortably for the rest of my attenuated life.
I’d consider it a bargain.