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Running Finally Proves Its Worth

A fad that survived the skeptics turns out to have extended lives, lowered risk of heart illness and diabetes, and given people a sense of well-being.

January 28, 2002|BENEDICT CAREY | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

"If you are not yet a runner, [this book] will show you how to become healthier and happier than you have ever imagined you could be. It will do so no matter how out of shape or fat or old or ungraceful you are, and no matter how many times you have tried other exercise regimens and failed."

So begins "The Complete Book of Running," the 314-page bestseller by Jim Fixx that first appeared 25 years ago, kicking off a mass movement of legs and arms that would later be described as a fitness revolution.

Tens of millions of Americans began running in the late 1970s, and they soon felt lean and strong and more physically confident than they could remember, just as the book promised. And though Fixx never claimed that jogging was guaranteed to lengthen their lives, he implied as much, writing that--with running--"the heart becomes a distinctly more efficient instrument, capable of doing more while working less hard."

His very tone appalled many doctors. Whatever the benefits of jogging, they argued, the repetitive pounding alone could damage the spine, the uterus, the stomach; would, over time, ruin hips, ankles and knees prematurely; and surely would cut short the lives of those with weak hearts who pushed themselves too hard.

As if to confirm their fears, on July 20, 1984, Fixx himself collapsed and died of heart failure--while jogging. He was 52 and seemingly in the best shape of his life.

"Those who were naysayers at the time said, 'Look, Jim Fixx did all that running, and it sure didn't do him any good,'" says Dr. William Haskell, a professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine who studies the effect of exercise on health. "How good could it be?"

A quarter of a century after it all began, doctors now have some good answers to that question--because millions of the men and women who started running as young or middle-aged adults have never stopped. These people have been running regularly for their entire adult lives, and researchers have been watching to see what has happened to their bodies and minds.

Several clear health benefits have emerged, Haskell says: Compared with sedentary people, habitual runners have an increased life expectancy of two to seven years; a 30% to 40% lower risk of developing heart disease; and only half the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, he said. In some high-risk groups, a running regimen can cut heart disease risk by more than half, as well.

Researchers cannot pinpoint a precise level of running that delivers optimal health benefits for everyone. But improvements in strength, blood pressure and other measures of physical health quickly show up in sedentary people who run just a half-hour (two to five miles) a few times a week; and those benefits usually increase with increased distance and speed up to 40 miles a week, and even more for some people.

The living evidence may be found in almost any of the country's long-running track clubs. One of the oldest in California is a Palos Verdes Peninsula-area group that formed in 1967 and now includes 50 people, most of them retirement-age, with more than two decades of running behind them. The group meets every Sunday morning for a one- to two-hour run, followed by breakfast.

"We've become old men together," says Dr. Tom Bassler, a 69-year-old retired pathologist and one of the founders, "but I tell you, we don't live like old men. Many of our members are in their 70s or 80s; these guys are still working, running, goofing around, building stuff. One just wrote a book."

Flavio Bisignano, 74, a restaurant owner, has been putting in at least seven miles almost every day since the Nixon administration, including the regular Sunday breakfast runs. "I have diabetes in my family on both sides, and yet I have had no problems, and I have to believe that's because of the running," he says. "I truly believe that without running I would be dead by now."

Like many such long-standing clubs across the country, the Palos Verdes group has an extraordinary health record. In more than 30 years, Bassler says, just three members have died: one of a brain tumor, another in a plane crash, the third in a carjacking. There have been no heart attacks; no strokes; no heart trouble at all, he says.

Many solo runners who have stayed active report a similar experience. Roberta Gibb of San Diego was the first woman to finish the Boston Marathon. That was in 1966; she was 23. "I can tell you this: I have never stopped running, and my doctor says I've got the physiology of a 30-year-old," she says. "People look at me and think I'm in my 30s and 40s. My joints are limber, and I've really had no running injuries at all."

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