Ready, Set, Run!

It may not be as trendy as Pilates or power yoga, but running still delivers a great fat-burning, stress-reducing aerobic workout. Many health benefits have long been linked to running. It helps increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol; helps with weight loss; builds strong bones; improves balance and coordination; lowers the risk for heart disease and diabetes; and helps improve sleep.

Getting started

Nearly anyone can run, at any age, and many people make it a lifetime habit. “Everyone could benefit from a running program, from fast walking to competitive running,” says Mark Elderbrock, M.D., an Ohio family physician and clinic adviser for the American Running Association.

Most people can ease into a running program on their own. If you have a history of heart disease or problems with your hips, legs or feet, it’s wise to check with a health care provider first. Getting your doctor’s approval is also a good idea if you are older than 40, especially if you have not exercised for a while. People who are obese may want to try a less strenuous type of exercise first, such as walking, because running puts extra stress on your muscles and joints.

If you are ready to try running, it’s best to start slowly and not push your body too hard. Be patient, Dr. Elderbrock says, and remember that it may take a while to get into shape and achieve the performance level of experienced runners. Everyone is different, and your progress will depend on your fitness level and stamina.

Before getting started, you’ll want to buy a good pair of athletic shoes to help you cover ground comfortably and avoid injury. Shoes don’t have to be expensive, but they should have a flexible sole, solid heel support and good shock absorption. Replace your shoes every 500 miles; just like tires on your car, shoes will wear out. Keeping your feet powdered and dry will make your run more comfortable, too.

Stay on track

Warm up before you run by walking for a short period first. If you are a beginning runner, try walking for 30 or 40 minutes three or four times a week, then gradually add some jogging to your routine. If you can comfortably talk while running, you are running at a good beginner’s pace.

Choose a safe running area, preferably flat, soft ground instead of concrete. To help prevent injuries, avoid running too far or too fast too soon. Even with slow, easy exercise, it is normal to have small aches and pains at first, which will subside as muscles get stronger. Most minor injuries can be treated with rest and ice. You may also want to take rest days to help your body fully recover from the impact of running.

Pace yourself

The most common running injuries affect the knees and feet and result from overusing muscles. You’ve probably heard of shin splints, which refer to pain in the front or inside areas of the lower legs. “Runner’s knee” is typically used to describe a variety of knee injuries caused by improper training or running on sloped surfaces. Running does not automatically cause injury or trauma to the knees, however, and actually can strengthen knee joints.

It’s important to listen to your body. If running results in pain or discomfort, try changing your running habits or stop and rest for several days. See your health care provider if the pain persists.

Although running burns calories and improves endurance and cardiovascular fitness, it is not as good at improving flexibility and strength. For these benefits, add other types of exercise into your routine, such as swimming, bicycling and lifting weights. A combination of activities will improve your overall fitness and reduce the risk for injury.

Even on days when you don’t feel like exercising, remember that a 10-minute run outside or on a treadmill will help keep your blood pressure down. Above all, running is a year-round activity that is convenient and enjoyable, and it can get you moving outdoors or in.

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