As runners we’re well used to the expectation that our non-running friends will repeatedly suggest that running is bad for us. It must be bad for our knees, make us tired and dehydrated, why put yourself through it etc etc. When you find yourself in a conversation with the receptionist at the physio about how much they would miss you if you stopped coming to visit them, then it can feel a bit like they have a point.
That’s why it’s rather wonderful when you get tangible data which shows how good running is for you when you look at the full picture.
Through work I have access to a full health assessment every two years. This is a great thing to have and I appreciate it a lot; you get a complete check-up including blood tests for anything nasty, and you get checked for the most common gendered cancers. They give you pointers for how to improve what you might need to work on and it gives you reassurance that you’re in decent nick.
I went for my latest assessment in September, which was my third one. When the report came through I looked back over the previous results from 2013 and 2015 and it threw up some interesting comparisons.
Here are the main results from the three assessments:
Back in 2013 I was not running, not doing much of anything really. My report states that I was planning to start cycling to work, which was a blatant lie told out of shame at being so sedentary, and that I did classes at a gym. Honestly I had to think for a bit about what gym that was let alone the classes, so that obviously didn’t last long.
By 2015 I had started running again, and had just joined a running club in preparation for the Ealing Half Marathon. My stats had started to come down for things like BMI and body fat, and my cholesterol was a lot better. The changes were noticeable but there were still several notes on the report about improving nutrition, resilience to stress and spine health.
My appointment in 2017 was almost embarrassing. It’s supposed to take up to 3 hours but I was out of there early because the doctor had nothing to lecture me on. If the results are to be believed, at the moment I am almost obnoxiously healthy. My BMI and body fat have gone down again, glucose and blood pressure have remained normal. Cholesterol looks about the same but the HDL level (which apparently is the main indicator) is super low, so my risk of a cardiac episode has reduced – they actually put zero risk on the report but I’d prefer not to be complacent about that. Hydration has improved, and my lung function was also better.
The changes in body composition are interesting. Actual weight wise there wasn’t a great deal of difference. In 2013 I was trying to get a bit thinner for my wedding, and in 2015 I was training for EHM so my BMI was ok in both. But look at the difference in body fat; in 2013 I was fairly slim but with an average level of body fat at nearly 26% (and I think it had been up over 30% earlier that year, which is nearly in the obese category for women). By 2015 I’d edged into the ‘fitness’ range, and after a couple of years of consistent running apparently now I count as being in the ‘athletic’ range, albeit at the higher end. I have never scored under 20% for body fat (my body shape just doesn’t allow for it) so that one was unexpected.
The main difference was to spine health, which was very gratifying as I have made an effort with my core and flexibility this year. Here are the pictures of my spine from 2015:
The orange shows the spine just standing normally, and the red is whilst holding dumbbells out to see how stable you are in terms of core strength. The green is bending to try to touch your toes.
Here are the pictures from 2017:
You can clearly see I’m standing straighter in general and there is less of a difference between the two standing postures, with less curvature. I was actually told in 2013 that I had a slight scoliosis, so I don’t know where that’s gone! But it’s the green one that really struck me – I’ve been using yoga poses as my stretching regime and that is the spinal outline of a decent forward bend performed with a bit of technique, as opposed to just trying to touch your toes! The comment from the physiologist was to look at the base of the spine, where in comparison to 2015 I am bending better from the hip and able to reach further and with a straighter posture. She was impressed with the improvement, and I was really chuffed! Apparently I am also slightly taller, which is either the result of standing up straight or that someone’s measuring stick was wrong.
The report also gave some insights into how running supports my mental health; across the board I scored well for resilience and emotional wellbeing. This was measured in terms of the ability to put yourself into a mentally and physically balanced state, using your heart rate as a guide during a set of breathing exercises. The testing method has changed since the previous reports, but either this is better than it used to be or my level of fitness being generally better means I have a lower resting heart rate now, so the test thinks I’m not stressed!
None of these seem like massive changes in terms of numbers. That’s because I don’t have an assessment report from my times of very poor health; I would love, for example, to be able to compare now to 2010 when I was 2 stone overweight and still drinking alcohol! They might seem like marginal gains, but in a lot of cases they represent a difference between an amber score and a green score on the assessment. Obviously I’ve had periods between these assessments where the scores would not have been so good (we all go up and down and there have been periods of injury or stress in the last few years where carbs, cheese and chocolate were very much my friends) but as a snapshot it does show you how much of a positive difference running can make to your health.
So next time someone tells me running must be bad for me, I won’t even let them finish.
I’ve got stats!