Fitness Basics: Running for Your Life

Experts offer advice to get you started.  

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

You don't have to be an athlete -- or even aspire to be one -- to start running.

Just look at Jim Scott. In January 2003, a month after he turned 60, Scott began running. That November, he finished the New York City Marathon (it took him six hours).

Scott, a radio-talk show host in Cincinnati, Ohio, didn't do much in the way of exercise before then. He played golf as often as he could but never found the time for regular workouts.

"When I turned 60, I thought it was a good time to reassess things," says Scott. "I started thinking, 'These 36-inch (waist) pants I've worn all my life are getting a bit tighter.'"

Scott decided he wanted to get in better shape, feel comfortable in his pants again, and improve his golf game. Oh, and there was one more impetus to try running: "I'm married to a marathon runner," he says.

Scott himself never intended to run a marathon. He simply wanted to go on Sunday morning runs with his wife, Donna Hartman, and keep up, he says. But sometimes running can surprise you.

Maybe you just want to run around your neighborhood, or explore a new one. Maybe you want to challenge your body in a different way, to tone up, or lose weight. Whatever your goals, says Scott's coach, Julie Isphording, running is an excellent exercise for a beginner to try.

"It's cheap, easy, and the perfect thing to do with a friend," says Isphording, a former marathoner and host of two health and fitness radio shows in Cincinnati.

Running's benefits include improved cardiovascular hearth, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, a revved-up metabolism, and a sense of self-esteem, says Isphording.

"You can go for a run in the morning and finish at your driveway with your hands in the air and you've had success before 7 a.m.," she says. "This is a gift from you to you."

Getting in Gear

Before you take your first step, get yourself a good pair of running shoes.

"It's the most important investment you'll make," says Isphording. She suggests going to a store specializing in running gear, where the staff tends to be knowledgeable about the products, and trying on as many pairs as necessary to find the right ones for you. A good fit is essential; blisters and shin splits are not going to inspire you to run.

And don't even think about running in your regular cross-trainers, tennis shoes, or regular sneakers.

"Running is very traumatic," says Forrest Dolgener, exercise physiologist and professor of exercise science at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. "The mechanics of running creates specific kinds of forces on the body. Running shoes are designed to absorb and minimize those kinds of forces."

But don't get too attached to your favorite pair. Running shoes have a limited lifespan, says Dolgener, co-author of The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer.

"Generally speaking, running shoes have 500 miles of life," he says. "Even though they make look good, shock absorption diminishes after 500 miles."

Start Gradually

Before you start any new fitness program, it's wise to consult with your physician -- especially if you're a man 45 or older or a woman 50 or older, the experts say.

"I always want anyone who's getting started to know their life digits -- blood pressure, BMI (body mass index), cholesterol, blood sugar," says Isphording.

Running is not the best exercise for everyone, Dolgener says. So listen to your doctor and your body.

"The worst thing you can do is start running, get injured, then stop exercising altogether," says Dolgener.

Once you get a green flag from the doctor, don those new running shoes and start out with a combination of walking and jogging. For example, you might alternate walking for five minutes and jogging for two minutes.

Over time, steadily increase the amount of time you spend running until you're able to jog for 20 minutes at a time, suggests Isphording. Once you achieve that, start increasing your distance.

For someone who has been sedentary, Dolgener recommends starting only with walking, then progressing to brisk walking before adding any jogging.

"Progression is the key element for someone who hasn't done this," says Dolgener.

Your cardiovascular system will adapt more easily than your musculoskeletal system, says Dolgener. People don't usually give up running because their hearts can't adapt but because of injury. Gradually conditioning yourself with a combination of walking and running gives your body time to adapt to the new stress on the joints and muscles.

"When I first started," recalls Scott, "Julie said, 'Do you think you can run for 15 minutes?' I said, 'Are you kidding me?'



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