The National Walkers and Runners Health Studies

Its generic to say that running has shaped my life.  From my choice of undergraduate school and education to where I choose to call home to what dictates my social calendar running is always present.   My high school coach said, “Running is not a sport, its a lifestyle” and I’ve taken it to the point that is also shaped my career choices.

As an undergraduate I was inspired to study exercise biology in hopes of understanding how to train better.  Since then the quest for the understanding the physiology behind performance has morphed to understanding the physiology behind disease, with exercise remaining the prominent perturbation of choice.  In trying to understand how exercise protects against chronic disease I have studied molecular and physiological responses in anything from Drosophila (fruit flies) to humans.  Still I am most excited by the clinical literature highlighting exercises beneficial effects in chronic disease prevention. My PhD mentor and I wrote a massive review article entitled “Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases” highlighting 35 different diseases in which the prevalence is decreased in physically active people, a document that I immensely proud.  Much of the data used in that article is from epidemiological studies, such as the Framingham or Harvard Nurses cohort.  One such epidemiology study that I am particularly fond of is the The National Walkers’ and Runners’ Health Studies.

Started in 1991, the The National Walkers’ and Runners’ Health Studies, led by Paul T Williams PhD of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, has collected data on more than 150,000 runners and walkers and conducted follow up studies for many of the subjects.  Using a fairly simple questionnaire that I adapted in a clinical study of my own, they can get a snapshot of the level of physical activity.  With such a large number of subjects they can then break them into many different groups to gain insight how effective a given dose of exercise is in a given disease.  While the data only shows correlations the results are staggering in the breadth and effectiveness of exercise.

Dr. Williams has published more than 50 papers from the data collected on this cohort.  I’ll just briefly summarize some of the major findings.  In most diseases (including death), speed and distance matter.  The more people exercised the faster the better…on average.  There will always be anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but I’d rather live my life with observations based on 10s of thousands of people, not the 1 or 2 sensations stories you hear about in the news.  Secondly, the range of diseases that exercise protects against is staggering.  Cancer mortality, sepsis mortality, cataracts, gout, hip replacements, chronic kidney diseases, in addition to the well documented decrease in overall mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, major killers in our modern society.  Lastly, the reduction in risk ranges depending on the diseases and the amount of exercise indicating that genetics and the pathology of each disease play a role in determining the effectiveness of exercise on any given disease.

Even with all this data supporting the positive role of exercise in health there is work to be done.  Chief among them is getting people to actually exercise.  Currently, less than 20% US adults acquires the recommended amount of daily aerobic and strength exercise.  Continuing to understand the molecular mechanisms through which exercise works will help provide the ammunition to encourage our healthcare system to place a premium on preventative medicine.

Indeed with the demographics of the (few) people that read my blog I’m essentially preaching to the choir, so why preach you might ask?  As the sport grows and our communities strengthen at the local, regional, and national levels from elites to weekend warriors we have the opportunity to champion exercise as the way to health and as a lifestyle rather than just a sport.  I will continue sharing how my exercise habits shape my life in a positive way I encourage you to do the same.

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