The Planet Wave: What If Everybody Ran?

I’ve never been much of a Neil Young fan, but one of his early songs has always resonated with me: ‘Long May You Run’. Actually, it’s just the title that has meant a lot to me as the song has nothing to do with running as much as a metaphor for what his life has been like. Still, as I age, as we all age it’s worth considering how long exactly we can continue running.

When the Neil Young song and album of the same name came out in the mid-70s, I was living in San Diego where I ran with a group of my 20-something contemporaries. We were an ultra-competitive, arrogant bunch who never gave a thought beyond our next workout or race.

Running wasn’t especially fun as every workout was hard and fast. Not surprisingly, most of us were chronically injured. Even if good running shoes existed back then, none of us could afford them. We were all so broke that we taped and glued our shoes together to get every last mile out of them before they fell apart. Nobody stretched, nobody ran easy, nobody understood the principles of training. It was survival of the fittest and on group runs, the slowest guys (usually me) got dropped like a rock.

In stark contrast to us, was a group of older guys who would meet every week in the same park we did at about the same time. The older guys, who must have been in their 40s, seemed well beyond ancient and we couldn’t understand why they would even bother running at that advanced age. They couldn’t win races and if you couldn’t, what was the point? (We were idiots; what can I say?)

Later, I found out why these old timers were running: They loved it. Winning didn’t matter to them; enjoying their running is what counted. Speed wasn’t important; longevity was.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I learned these old guys were all part of a long-range, seminal study being performed by San Diego State researchers who were looking at whether running and exercise could extend the life span.

What I also didn’t know at the time was that these folks formed the nucleus of the 40 Plus running movement started by such pioneers as David Pain who founded masters track in 1968. Pain and other San Diego runners such as Jim O’Neil, Bill Gookin and Shirley Matson made mature runners part of the running fabric and introduced age-group competition to road races.

For all I know, some of those same guys who were in the San Diego State study are still running. They and other pioneers who ran well into their 70s and 80s were proof positive that running could add years to your life. Since those early studies, there have been numerous other studies, including several by the 50-Plus Running Club at Stanford University, that confirmed that a life of running and exercise could lead to a better quality of life.

Exercise and its positive relationship with the aging process is now a much studied field of research. One of the latest studies to show the relationship between running and aging actually puts some hard numbers with it. An ongoing study of residents of Copenhagen, Denmark who engaged in small amounts of easy running (1-2 ½ hours per week) increased the life expectancy of the subjects by 6.2 years for men and 5.6 years for women, compared to more sedentary residents of Copenhagen.

The study involved 20,000 Copenhagens who were between the ages of 20 and 93 in 1976 when the study began. Said Peter Schnor, the chief cardiologist of the Copenhagen City Heart Study: ‘Mortality is lower in people reporting moderate jogging, than in non-joggers or those undertaking extreme levels of exercise.’

I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, but if you need any reason to continue running into your Golden Years, here’s additional proof that you’ll live a better, longer, more productive life if you run.

I’m not suggesting running is a panacea that can cure every ill, every injustice, but it raises an intriguing question: What if everybody ran?

Seriously, what if everybody ran? What if every elementary school introduced running as part of its daily curriculum? If so, could childhood obesity be eradicated at its source?

It’s not so crazy to ponder if everybody truly ran what the long-range ramifications would be. Would smoking and hard drinking be something we just saw on Mad Men and made fun of like typewriters? Could running provide a cure for heart disease in the same way vaccinations eliminated polio? Would doctors write prescriptions to begin a running program, rather than just prescribing medications? Would the average American live longer than the current 79.8-year national average (ranking 35th among countries)?

If everybody ran, instead of building more roads, municipalities could create more running trails and bike paths. Instead of a national If everybody ran, would running shoes be part of the Affordable Health Care law? Could politicians who ran together, work together?

Have any ideas about this revolutionary notion? If you do, let me know what you think are some other possibilities.

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