Latest News » Study: Running with age can improve walking efficiency

Running as you get older can help make your walking significantly more energy-efficient.

We all worry about getting older, particularly as the birthdays start to add up. Aside from the superficial signs we may dislike about growing old, aging significantly heightens health risks for weakening memory support, a slowing metabolism and increasingly pained joints and muscles. But there are simple lifestyle changes we can make over the years that go a long way in helping you enjoy your golden years as lively as possible.

As NPR notes, the older we get, the slower our legs move. Consequently, we expend 15 to 20 percent more energy just to walk the same distance compared to when we were younger. And as Justus Ortega, a kinesiologist from California's Humboldt State University, tells the public radio service, using more energy leads to greater fatigue and a reduced willingness to stay physically active.

But you can nip this in the bud now with one simple activity: Running!

A joint study conducted by Ortega's team and other researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that regularly running gives older people a greater "walking economy," on par with their younger selves.

NPR reports that the study involved 15 men and 15 women who averaged 69-years-old and were already habitual runners or walkers. After walking on specialized treadmills at three different speed settings — and with their oxygen and CO2 production monitored as they moved — the researchers saw that the runners used between 7 and 10 percent less energy compared to the walkers. 

These findings, which were published Thursday, November 20, in the journal PLOS ONE, point to two possible reasons why running may be able to put more fuel in the engine of our aging bodies:

  • According to Justus, there is evidence that the cellular process in which oxygen is converted into ATP — the chemical energy that enables muscle movement — is impaired by aging, but aerobic exercise can reverse this process. In other words, the more you run, the more efficient your cells are at creating ATP, even if your body is a little older.
  • "Another possible factor is muscle co-activation: older adults tend to use more muscles to perform the same movement than do younger people, perhaps to stabilize the joints," NPR writes. "It's quite possible that runners, who are used to spending more time on one foot, use fewer muscles to perform a given movement than the walkers. That might contribute to their lower use of energy, says Justus."

Of course, while running is an excellent workout for the lungs and leg muscles, it can be a frequent source of sore joints and bones. Mixing more cross-training exercises — like biking and swimming — into your routine can help relieve this stress.

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