If you're debating signing up for that half or full marathon, here's a reason to pull the trigger: Training to compete in endurance races can improve your bone's health, according to a new study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
The researchers tested the bone densities of the right and left feet of 122 male and female marathon runners and 81 half marathon and 10K runners, and compared them against a control group of same-aged sedentary individuals. They found that both male and female endurance runners had a greater stiffness index—a variable directly related to bone quality—than the non-active folks. And the greater the race distance trained for the better, the study authors say. (Science says marathon training can also boost your brain.)
This isn't to say that everyone should run out and become a long distance runner, cautions Kirk A. Campbell, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. After all, this study didn't report on a potentially serious downside to endurance running: the injuries these runners are more susceptible to, Campbell says. (Psst... Check out 8 Common Running Myths, Busted.)
While any type of weight-bearing exercise is recommended to maintain bone density and reduce osteoperosis, excessive running can lead to the opposite problem of stress fractures, seconds Alexis Colvin, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Not to mention, the study only looked at the density of the heel bone, and not other bones that are typically measured for osteoporosis, such as the hip or lumbar spine, she explains.
The good news is that if endurance running isn't for you, jogging or simply walking can be just as beneficial, the docs agree. Regularly implementing some type of cardio exercise or weight-bearing activity puts 'good stress' on the body, ultimately helping your body to adapt to the impact and improve your bone density and strength, explains John Gallucci, Jr., founder of JAG Physical Therapy. "If you don't like to run, activities such as aerobics, dancing, yoga, and kickboxing can be just as beneficial," he says.
You can also improve your overall bone health by making sure you maintain a balanced diet with enough fruits and veggies, and get in your required dose of calcium and Vitamin D, Campbell says. (Something that the endurance runners in this study were likely paying closer attention to compared to a more sedentary person, he adds.)
So sure, this might not make you drastically change your habits if training for a marathon just isn't for you, but it's something to keep in mind the next time you're on the treadmill and thinking of calling it quits early. And if bone health isn't enough of a motivation, these 11 Science-Backed Reasons Running Is Really Good For You might do the trick.