Now that the dust has settled somewhat after it was reported that running is as bad for you as not doing any exercise at all, it is a good time for a brief reflection on what this episode has taught us about media dissemination of research. So runners, get your trainers out the bin, re-register your Strava account, grab yourself a pinch of salt and let’s revisit the story.
In case you don’t know what I am on about – this week a study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology which suggested that very high doses of jogging may lose any mortality benefits usually associated with running – i.e. that those who run with a high frequency and high intensity may not live any longer than those who no exercise at all. This research was picked up by many media outlets include the BBC, The Telegraph and The New York Times who inevitably ran with scaremongering misrepresentations of the research, taking the results to show that running is not good for us – the BBC went with the headline: ‘Too much jogging is unhealthy’ (they have since revised the title).
Well now. This is mostly utter codswallop.
Unhelpful Media Sensationalism
I make this judgement not as a criticism of the research (although there are some, we’ll come onto that) but that the media have reduced this research into a singular, sensationalist, and unhelpful narrative about running and health. A few excellent responses have already made about this – I’d particularly direct you to Runner’s World’s and the NHS’ rebuttals – so I wont go into too much detail here but I do want to share some thoughts from my point of view.
- Firstly, if the study is correct and high doses of jogging do result in a higher mortality rate then it should be taken seriously. No upper limits of exercise have ever been stated before so the research could be ground breaking.
- However, media claims that running is unhealthy is very misleading for two reasons. Firstly, the study showed that only those with higher and more strenuous doses of jogging experienced worse mortality rates. So the majority of runners, and especially new runners, would witness significant mortality benefits – which is surely much more of an important headline!
- Secondly, such reporting suggests the only indicator of health is longevity. What about the health benefits during a person’s life? Surely they are important? And running gives many health benefits to those who practice it.
- Even if the research is correct, I would argue that quality of life is more important than quantity?
- Wellbeing is also closely related to health and running also scores positively on this register – resulting in greater happiness, more friendships etc. While many may take up running with the aim of improving health, they often continue it for many other things it gifts their life.
- Ultimately, running is a very valuable, healthy and societally good practice for people to be taking part in and such sensationalist reporting is extremely unhelpful when we need to be encouraging more people to become physically active, not putting them off by claiming that they are just as well off sat on the sofa.
- It is also a lesson in how the media can manipulate and misrepresent academic research. I have been fortunate that there has been some interest in my studies so far and that all media reporting has been (mostly) a fair and accurate reflection. But it may not also be that way, and if I ever conduct research that may lead to sensationalist headlines, I must be wary about how it can be misconstrued.
Something no media article picked up when reporting this research, was the fact that another article was published in the same journal that highlighted some of the limitations of the study. This is probably behind a paywall, but the NHS have also done a terrific job of questioning the study rather than just its media representation. Now I am no expert in health research and certainly make no claims to be, so this is a summary of the criticisms outlined by the above two articles:
- The study was self reported in terms of the amount people run and this may induce measurement error and bias.
- The study used a practical but arbitrary categorisation of doses of jogging. This resulted in a smaller sample size and lower statistical power for higher doses of jogging (where no mortality benefits were found), which would skew the figures. Another study, using different categorisations, suggested that it is possible that running at high doses may provide mortality benefits compared with non-runners.
- The study did not take into account participation in other types of physical activity and it was possible that both joggers and non joggers participated unequally in other types of physical activity. When adjusted, another study seemed to suggest that running does give mortality benefits.
- The general consensus of the data certainly suggests that “more is not better!” regarding running and mortality. However, more data is needed to truly determine “is more actually worse?” regarding exercise dose and prognosis.
Ultimately, the research is only a precautionary tale about the frequency and intensity of running and mortality – for it to be truly valuable, limits needs to be defined. Too much running may be bad for us – but how much is too much? I will give the last word to David Moorcroft, former 5000m WR holder and head of Run Group who had this response published in the Telegraph today: