How Far Do You Need to Run to Score Its Health Benefits?

You don't need to jog long distances to boost your health. Find out exactly how many miles and minutes you need to run to reap the cardio activity's benefits.

If you've ever felt embarrassed about your measly morning mile after seeing your friend's post-marathon selfie or 10-mile running pace on Instagram take heart — you're still doing your body a solid.

Turns out, you don't need to log dozens of miles or spend an hour-plus on the treadmill each week to score the health benefits of running. Ahead, find out how far you actually need to run to see an improvement in your health.

How Much To Run To Enjoy Benefits
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How Far You Need to Run to Improve Your Health

Reminder: Running is associated with a plethora of health benefits. Running has been linked with a lower prevalence of hypertension, type II diabetes, and high cholesterol, according to a 2015 meta-analysis in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. It's also been found to reduce the risk of respiratory disease, and with each run completed, the risk of stroke may decrease by 11 percent in women, according to the review. To top it off, one study analyzed suggested that jogging 1 to 2.4 hours a week was associated with a 71 percent reduction in the risk of dying from any cause, while other research on 55,000 people found that jogging may extend your life by about three years.

Despite what influencers on the internet may have you believe, you don't need to spend hours running each week to nab some of those perks. In fact, running just 20 minutes at a moderate effort five times a week — or at a vigorous effort three times a week — can significantly improve your health, says Joshua Funderburg, an NASM-certified personal trainer, Precision Run running coach, and Equinox group fitness manager. "A couple of miles is all you need to start with to see results," he adds.

And research backs this up: Running just six miles a week (or for about 51 minutes total just one to two times a week) delivers nearly the same risk reduction for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality that comes with longer sessions, according to the Mayo Clinic Proceedings review. In fact, the runners who had lower mileages saw greater benefit in regard to cardiovascular and all-cause mortality than the folks who ran more than 20 miles (or for more than 176 minutes total, at least six times a week), lead author Chip Lavie, M.D., said in a video released with the study.

That's a lot of return for a pretty small investment. And all of those health benefits of running come with few of the costs that people often associate with the sport. Contrary to popular belief, running did not seem to damage bones or joints and actually lowered the risk of osteoarthritis and hip replacement surgery, Lavie added in the video.

The Risks of Running Too Much

While running more than 20 miles a week does improve cardiovascular fitness, it comes with a few potential risks, according to the Mayo Clinic study. Folks who run marathons may be at risk of "cardiotoxicity," aka cardio-induced heart damage. Specifically, marathon running has been associated with increases in the size and dilation of heart chambers, both of which may reduce heart functioning, as well as an increase in specific proteins in the brain that are markers of heart failure, according to the researchers. (That said, these abnormalities appear to resolve one to three days post-marathon, according to the study.)

Still, "this certainly suggests that more is not better," Lavie said in the video, adding that the risk of serious consequences is small but still worth discussing with your doctor if you're competing in, say, a marathon. "Clearly, if one is exercising at a high level, it isn't for health because the maximum health benefits occur at very low doses," he said.

Not to mention, running every day without giving your body enough time to recover can result in overuse injuries and muscle tears, as can increasing your training volume too quickly, says Funderburg. "As a good rule, it is strongly recommended to have one to two days of recovery per week," he says. "[And] don't increase your weekly volume of running more than 10 percent of the week prior. This will help avoid common occurrences like shin splints and stress fractures."

The Bottom Line

Even logging just a few miles a week can do your health some good, according to research and experts. And if the data have convinced you to pick up the cardio activity for the first time, remember to start small, running short distances at a time and checking in with how you're feeling, suggests Funderburg. "Don't be afraid to start with a run-and-walk situation," he adds. "If you have never run, then incorporating walking into your run is a great place to start."

The takeaway message? Don't be discouraged if you can "only" run a mile or if you're "just" a jogger; you're doing great things for your body with every step you take.

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