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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Daily Dose

Can running 5 minutes a day help you live longer?

As an avid runner, I loved seeing the headline on a press release that running at a slow pace — for as little as 5 minutes a day — could add three years to my life. The study was published Monday in the prestigious Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and its findings were based on exercise surveys taken from more than 55,000 adults ages 18 to 100 over a 15-year period. Nearly one-quarter of the study participants were regular runners.

My first thought was: Who really runs for five minutes at a time? Actually, likely very few people in the study, if any at all. The researchers found that running once or twice a week for less than 51 minutes in total — at a pace that was slower than 6 miles per hour — was enough to reduce the risk of dying by 30 percent from any cause and from heart disease or stroke by 45 percent compared to non-runners.

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If you take those 30 to 40 minutes of running per week and divide by 7, you get running bouts of 5 to 6 minutes per day. I think the headline and conclusions drawn by the researchers were a little misleading since the study didn’t actually measure 5-minute running bouts.

Whether running actually provides more life-extending benefits than, say, swimming or biking, also wasn’t measured in this study.

(The researchers took into account other forms of exercise that non-runners may have been engaging in and excluded those from the analysis. They also took into account other health factors that runners were more likely to have like leaner body weight, no smoking habit, and fewer chronic diseases.)

“Runners are generally in better physical condition with less body fat, lower blood pressure, and fewer medical problems,” said study leader Duck-chul Lee, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University. Vigorous exercise certainly helps confer these health benefits, but I’m also fairly certain that being in good health enables one to keep running through the years.

I don’t know too many 80- or 90-year-olds who continue to run, and those who were still at it in the study were likely to be in superior health. Thus, the study findings could be skewed by the fact that healthier seniors continue running while those in worse health don’t.

Observational studies like these, which aren’t designed to measure cause and effect, can’t take all differences between runners and non-runners into account, so it’s hard to say exactly how much running contributed to a longer lifespan.

Lee agreed, but he said the main message of the study was that some vigorous exercise was important — and likely we don’t need the 75 minutes a week that’s recommended by the government.

“You can get significant health benefits even if you don’t reach that 75 minutes per week,” he said.

Previous research suggests that taking a brisk 15-minute daily walk was associated with a three-year life extending benefit — similar to the 5-minute daily run seen in this new study.

This is “good news to the sedentary because finding 5 to 15 minutes per day to exercise is much easier than finding 30 minutes,” wrote researchers from the Institute of Population Health Sciences in Taiwan, in an editorial that accompanied the study.

They also acknowledged, however, that running regularly for several miles at a time leads to more injuries than a leisurely walk. One study found that one in four novice runners who were training for a 4-mile run had injuries that sidelined them at least once during an 8-week period.

Lee recommended that new runners start slowly with a “transitional phase” that involves getting started with brisk walks for 15 minutes and then running for 30 seconds at a time during those walks.

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Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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