Consistently running for exercise seems to slow down the aging process and allows older people to move more easily, according to a new small-scale study of exercise and aging. The study's findings suggest that older adults who regularly run for exercise are better walkers than even those older adults who regularly walk for exercise.
"The bottom line is that running keeps you younger, at least in terms of energy efficiency," said University of Colorado Associate Professor Rodger Kram, a co-author on the study, in a written release.
For the study, published online Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers studied 30 healthy older volunteer adults (15 males and 15 females) with an average age of 69 who either regularly ran or walked for exercise. The volunteers all had been either running or walking at least three times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes per workout for six months or longer. The volunteers walked on a force-measuring treadmill at three speeds: 1.6 mph, 2.8 mph, and 3.9 mph. In order to help evaluate the energy expended, the researchers measured each participant's oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production during the testing sessions.
"What we found is that older adults who regularly participate in highly aerobic activities -- running in particular -- have a lower metabolic cost of walking than older, sedentary adults and also lower than seniors who regularly walk for exercise," said Humboldt State Professor Justus Ortega, the lead author on the study, in a release.
"It's been known for a long time that as people age their maximum aerobic capacity, or 'horsepower,' declines, and that is true for runners as well," said Ortega. "What's new here is we found that old runners maintain their fuel economy."
Researchers said it was surprising to find that older adults who regularly run are better walkers than even those older adults who regularly walk, noting that those who run enjoy a better quality of life because of their ability to move around more easily.
"Walking for exercise has many positive health effects, like fending off heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and depression -- it's just that walking efficiency does not seem to be one of them," Kram said. "Because we found no external biomechanical differences between the older walkers and runners, we suspect the higher efficiency of senior runners is coming from their muscle cells."
For years, researchers have been studying the effects of running and walking with an eye towards determining whether one is preferable to the other in terms of health benefits. One study from 2013, for example, found that running is a better way to achieve weight loss than walking. Another study, though, found that walkers fare better than runners when it comes to the risk of developing heart disease.
In the end, any kind of exercise appears to be at least somewhat beneficial as a person ages. In May 2014, for example, findings from the longest-running clinical trial on the relationship between physical activity and aging in older adults were revealed, naming daily exercise, sustained over several years, as the best way to age healthily.
So what are you waiting for? Get out those gym shoes and start moving!