BHealthy Blog

Marathon Running and Your Heart

Woman Running Outside

By Dr. Scott Davis, Baptist Health Heart Institute/Arkansas Cardiology-Little Rock

The Little Rock Marathon is coming up the first weekend in March—a race that draws thousands to downtown Little Rock. While some do it to check off their bucket list, the challenge may also do a world of good for their heart.

We’ve always heard that exercise is good for your heart. But, what about running marathons?

Scientists from University College London found that people who run a marathon for the first time see a four-year reduction in their “blood vessel age.” This is thought to be because of the lower blood pressure and increased artery flexibility that comes with training and completing the endurance test.

What is happening to our blood vessels as we age?

Arteries naturally become stiffer with age, increasing the risk of heart disease, kidney problems and even dementia. While high blood pressure drugs can combat this, not everyone with stiff arteries has hypertension.

What the study showed

Scientists looked at 138 first-time marathon runners who took part in the London race in 2016 or 2017. The participants were healthy and ran no more than two hours a week at the start. Their artery stiffness was measured six months before the marathon, when training started, and within three weeks of completing the race. Results, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, suggest that marathon training knocked up to four years off of the runners’ aortic age. Older males and those who ran more slowly benefited most.

What does this mean for you?

This shows that it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months. It tells us the importance of lifestyle modifications to slow the risks associated with aging, especially as it appears to never be too late—as evidenced by older, slower runners. Yes, more research is needed, but the benefits of exercise are undeniable. Keeping active reduces your risk of having a heart attack or stroke and cuts your chances of an early death. As the old mantra goes, ‘If exercise were a pill, it would be hailed as a wonder drug.’ While some with pre-existing medical conditions have died attempting to run a marathon, the scientists stress that this is rare, with the “benefits outweighing the risks” in most cases.

Learn more about the Little Rock Marathon, including our tips for nutrition, common injuries & more here. Learn more about heart health in our health library, or find a Baptist Health cardiologist here.