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I love running. I run regularly and competitively. In my early years, teachers and family told me it was the best thing I could do if I want to live long (together with good diet).

But more and more I've been hearing about the wear and tear it does to the body (not just on the joints, but also on the heart).

I think it goes without question that running keeps us healthy for the first few decades of our lives, but it seems the number of runners dying before 90 or 100 is relatively much larger than in other groups of people, for example:

In this comprehensive list of oldest surviving athletes, only 3 are runners (2 long-distance and one 400m), whereas for sports that are much less intense on the cardiovascular system we have far more. There's 27 baseball players (according to this, they barely run[1]) and 13 gymnasts. There are far more runners than baseball players or gymnasts (baseball is only popular in a few countries, and gymnastics requires training and equipment that not everyone has access to), so comparatively, more runners are dying before age 100 than average.

The other cardiovascular sports also have very low proportions of people surviving to 100: 5 cyclists, 2 swimmers, 3 rowers.

There should be far fewer world leaders than professional runners, but 17 world leaders have survived to 100 and the latest data shows only 3 professional runners. Likewise there's more professional runners than physicists, chemists or mathematicians but there's 14, 15, and 16 of them surviving to 100 respectively. There's also been 18 pianists, 36 composers, and 20 singers that survived to 100, but it seems only 3 runners.

For me and all the runners out there, I ask if there's any (credible) studies on the longevity of competitive runners? If not what are some of the scientifically accepted LONG-TERM health effects of running?


Footnotes:

[1] "Some New Yorkers walk a greater distance to work each day than the average player runs during a game, which is likely less than half a mile even for multiple home run hitters and fielders. The bases are only 90 feet apart" from this article.

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  • I think the jury is still out on running and for endurance sports, in general. Although recreational running has been around since, well, forever, I doubt the documented instances of long life in runners over time has even been around for 30-40 years. Living to 100 is probably more genetic than anything. Also, runners tend to eat like crap to fuel their runs which probably contributes more to heart disease than they’d like to think. You may be burning off yesterday’s Big Mac on today’s run, but only the calories. All of the contributions from the sugar and saturated fats have been made. – Frank Aug 26 '18 at 2:22
  • @Frank: There seems to have only been 3 professional runners that became centenarians (2 long-distance, 1 short-distance), 5 cyclists, and 3 rowers, whereas there's 13 gymnasts, 27 baseball players (who typically, using your words, "eat like crap"), 17 world leaders, 18 pianists, 16 mathematicians, etc. If genetics plays more role "than anything", then why are so few cardio athletes making it to 100 compared to basically every other profession (including other types of athletes)? – Nike Dattani Aug 26 '18 at 5:45
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    You have to at least normalize the data so that you account for the populations of each group. I’d be willing to bet that “pro runner,” specifically distance runner, is one of the smallest populations. Does the discrepancy still exist when comparing populations? – Frank Aug 26 '18 at 6:44
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    OK. There are some preliminary studies indicating that heavy endurance sports could lead to increased heart problems. Endurance athletes also tend to have lower resting heart rates which is thought to possibly cause problems with heart rhythms later in life. But, truthfully, this is all preliminary data that a lot of people reject. – Frank Aug 26 '18 at 7:12
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    I’m on my phone right now, which isn’t really suitable for an answer. This link is a TedTalk video from 2012, where all these claims originated. youtu.be/Y6U728AZnV0. However, in 2016, a pretty large study from Belgian scientists seemed to refute the claims in the TEDTALK. sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160531104518.htm That should get you started. If you look on bodybuilding sites, they covet the “running is bad for you,” stuff. :-) – Frank Aug 26 '18 at 7:19
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It is well accepted that longevity has more to do with poverty rather than exercise.

In countries where diet is dictated by poverty we see record longevities like the Okinawa's or the most infamous example when Finland was allied with Nazy Germany they gave all their livestock away and Finland hit a record with the lowest mortality they ever had, not even to this day with modern medicine they are as healthy as they were during ww2. And both the Okinawa and Finland during ww2 didn't get much exercise.

It seems diet is more studied than exercise when it comes to longevity, and for good reason.

So no, there isn't much evidence in defense to exercise increasing longevity.

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  • Are you saying that giving away all their livestock made the Finns healthier? They may have lived longer, but whether or not they were healthy is another question. – Tanner Swett Feb 7 at 16:05
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There's a lot of confounding variables in your data. The first one I noticed is relevant to world leaders.

Survivorship bias

You don't typically get to run a country until you're in your 40s at least. The US seems set on mid to late 70s at the moment... Runners typically peak before 30 (marathoners just before 30). So a runner has to make it 70 more years, where a politician only 20-40 years.

Put another way, two people, one has the makings of the fastest marathoner ever, the other has a natural charm and will clearly grow up to be president. They both start to decline in their 40s, and die in their late 50s. The first one was a champion runner, then died almost 30 years later. The second was taken before they could achieve their goals.

Money

The second thing I realized is almost the exact opposite of the only current answer. Within a given society, richer people live longer on average. Especially people who were richer as children.

At birth

People who were born poor can become runners, as opposed to say luge, where if you're dirt poor, you just can't. People who literally can't afford sneakers can get good enough without them to be given sneakers, then eventually to be western nation poor to middle class.

Gymnasts have to be born at least western nation middle class. Skiers, american baseball, polo (either kind), all of the ice sports, all of the pool sports,... I honestly don't know about cricket, because wow, there's a lot of cricketers who kept going.

During professional life

And if you become a great runner, you'll make something, but unless you're the best in the world for a while, not that much; after Desiree Linden won the Boston Marathon in 2018, she took some time off, then went back to work at the running store. Compare that to Kristi Yamaguchi who starred in ice shows, got sports casting gigs, was on "Dancing with the stars", made a fitness video with the California Raisins,...

Mislabeled Data

Also, I'm kind of curious about those people labelled "athlete", because the three oldest "athletes": "Hidekichi Miyazaki", "Mien Schopman-Klaver", "Donald Pellmann" all turn out to have been runners (though Donald Pellman is cheating in that he only became an athlete at 100 years old (see Survivorship Bias above)).

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Yes Olympic Athletes Live Longer Than General Population. But this is probably because they take better care of themself after their athletic careers are over. Being in great shape is an important part of their self image and they will go to great lengths to preserve this. However being olympic medal fit in itself is probably not healthy since this inflicts too much stress on the body. This is probably particularly true if the stress is intense on one crucial part of the body such as the heart.

Gymnast typically had a very short athletic career and only took part in one olympiad. So the stress on the body was minimized. In baseball I would think the most intense stress would be on the shoulders. So old baseball players probably have bad shoulders. This is however not mortal the way a bad heart may be.

However I am assuming that you have never been anywhere near olympic medal fit. So this may not apply to you. More of a good thing is definately not always better, but it is hard to know where the cut-off is.

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