Health and Wellness

Running one marathon can make your arteries healthier, study says

The London Marathon
Doug McKinlay | Getty Images

New research suggests running a marathon for the first time could help people reduce their vascular age — the age of one's arteries — by up to four years.

According to a new study published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that training for and completing a marathon, even at relatively low intensity levels, was associated with reversing age-related stiffening of the body's main artery, the aorta, and helped to reduce blood pressure.

"Our study shows it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months," Dr. Charlotte Manisty, the study's senior author and cardiologist at University College London said in a statement. "These benefits were observed in overall healthy individuals across a broad range and their marathon times are suggestive of achievable exercise training in novice participants."

For the study, researchers tracked 138 untrained and healthy first-time marathon runners over the course of a six-month period ahead of the 2016 and 2017 London marathons, including two weeks post-marathon. Participants had no significant past medical or cardiac history and were not running for more than two hours per week at baseline, according to the report. Average participants were 37 years old with ages ranging from 21 to 69 and 49% of them were male.

The results found that for first-time long distance runners, training and completion of the marathon was associated with reductions in their blood pressure and aortic stiffening — which is when the arterial wall begin to fray due to stress.

Older, slower male marathons saw the most improvement. Researchers noted that while they only recruited healthy participants for the study, "those with hypertension and stiffer arteries might be expected to have an even greater cardiovascular response to exercise training."

While arterial stiffening is a normal part of aging, it makes it harder for the heart to pump blood throughout the body. This can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease, as well as dementia, researchers said. 

All the participants were recommended to follow the 17-week "Beginner's Training Plan" provided by the marathon's website, which consisted of approximately three runs per week that increases in difficulty each week. However, researchers did not "discourage" those who wished to use other training program. The average running time for female marathoners was five hours and 40 minutes and four hours and 50 minutes for males.

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