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For a moment last week, research offered all of us slow, plodding exercisers a moment of revenge.
According to a new Danish study, those hard-charging runners who blow by us on the jogging trail — or pound away for a sweaty hour on the treadmill several times a week — are ruining their health as much as sluggish, non-exercising couch potatoes.
In fact, the researchers said, it was really the twice-a-week, sedate joggers who were going to live the longest. Based on the study of about 1,000 joggers ages 20 to 95, and 413 non-exercisers, the death rate of “strenuous joggers” (runners) and non-exercisers was the same during 12 years of follow-up.
“Overall, significantly lower mortality rates were found in those with a slow or moderate jogging pace, while the fast-paced joggers had almost the same mortality risk as the sedentary non-joggers,” researchers said in a statement. Even better, jogging just 1 to 2.4 hours per week was associated with the lowest mortality and there was no need to jog more than three times per week, the authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, said.
For a whole day, slow-and-steady exercisers celebrated. Dozens of stories appeared, with gleeful headlines such as the British Telegraph’s “Fast running is as deadly as sitting on couch, scientists find.”
But then some skeptics took a closer look at the data.
An editorial accompanying the study noted that the “strenuous” jogging group included only 40 people, while the other groups (light, moderate and non-joggers) included hundreds — which makes it statistically questionable to claim that there are no real differences between the small group’s death rate and that of the larger group.
Also, the researchers didn’t look at more than 3,500 active non-joggers who exercised in other ways, editorial coauthor Duck-chul Lee of Iowa State University told HealthDay. And they looked only at death from all causes, he said, instead of looking to see if high jogging miles and times affected certain causes of death, such as heart disease.
University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers echoed the same criticism, writing in the New York Times that there were only two deaths in the strenuous group and no indication whether the runners really died from overexercising: “Needless to say, these two deaths do not add up to a statistically significant finding. Moreover, the researchers do not even report whether those two deaths were from causes that could plausibly be related to running.” For all we know, they died from a car accident or eating a bad piece of sushi.
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Or, as Alex Hutchison of Runner’s World put it, “Thank goodness a third person didn’t die, or public health authorities would be banning jogging.”
Despite these limitations, the Danish study adds to growing evidence that even a light-to-moderate amount of exercise has health benefits. After all, even those in the study who jogged less than an hour a week had a lower death rate than the sedentary folks did.
Considering Americans’ high level of obesity and low level of physical activity, the takeaway still is: Do something physical. Even a little bit. It can help you to live longer.
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