Running Seniors Can’t Stop Aging, But They Can Slow it Down

It’s impossible to run away from aging, however, a new study reveals that seniors who regularly run for their exercise can slow their aging process more so than those who prefer walking.

That’s because running mitigates the age-related deterioration of “walking economy,” or the metabolic cost to perform an motion, whereas walking for exercise has a minimal effect on age-related decline, says the study from researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.

“Walking performance typically deteriorates with advanced age, and impaired walking performance is a key predictor of morbidity among older adults,” writes the study’s lead author Prof. Justus Ortega of Humboldt University. 

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A distinctive characteristic of impaired walking among older adults is a 15-20% greater metabolic cost for walking compared to young adults, Ortega added. 

For their experiment, researchers recruited a group of 15 older adults with an average age of 69 who ran regularly for exercise, as well as another 15 older adults who walk.  “Regularly” was defined as walking or running for more than 30 minutes, three times a week. 

After receiving several preliminary health screenings from a physician, older adults underwent several treadmill sessions  at different speeds—1.67 miles per hour (MPH), 2.80 MPH and 3.91 MPH. 

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Researchers measured the metabolic rates, ground reaction forces and spatio-temporal strides of both older walkers and older runners, while they walked on the dual-belt, force-sensing treadmill across the three speeds. Walkers’ and runners’ oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production were also measured as part of the sessions. 

When all sessions were completed, it was found that older runners had a 7-10% better walking economy than older walkers over the range of speeds tested and had walking economy similar to young, sedentary adults over a similar range of speeds.

In contrast to older runners, researchers found that older walkers had similar walking economy as older, sedentary adults, and approximately 26% worse walking economy than young adults. 

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The bottom line: running more allows seniors to slow down the aging process, thus enabling easier movement for less-strenous motions such as walking.

“In conclusion, older runners mitigate the age-related deterioration of walking economy,” writes Ortega. “However, older walkers are unable to forestall the decline of walking economy as they require the same metabolic consumption as sedentary older adults.”

View the study.

Written by Jason Oliva