Blood vessels in first-time marathon runners could regain some elasticity as participants train for the big race, according to new research in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Even a training regimen designed for novice runners who completed the London Marathon in slower-than-average time was enough to drop their blood pressure and improve the health of a vital artery near their hearts.
Like the rest of our bodies, blood vessels stiffen with age. This includes the aorta, a vessel sprouting from the heart that carries oxygenated blood to our muscles and organs. Decaying elasticity in the aorta has been linked to heart disease, kidney disease and even dementia.
Tests of the marathon participants showed their aortas had regained some flexibility, enough to look around four years younger than they were before. Surprisingly, older runners saw the most health improvements. “We were gratified to see that it’s possible to improve things in older people that you think would have established irreversible changes,” says study co-author Charlotte Manisty, a cardiologist at the University College London.
Since running is a popular and accessible exercise, Manisty and her team wanted to see if it held benefits for parts of our circulatory system that a blood-pressure cuff can't reach. So the researchers followed 139 people who completed the London Marathon. Most used the race's “Beginner’s Training Plan,” which includes about three runs a week for 17 weeks; individuals could have chosen more rigorous regimens if they wanted. Manisty and her team gave participants heart MRIs, which measured the stretchiness of heart blood vessels, and blood-pressure measurements before and up to three weeks after the marathon.
Turning Back Time
Not all parts of the aorta regained flexibility — that particular improvement applied to just one of three regions Manisty and her team tested. Still, they were surprised to see that the blood vessel tissue was becoming more elastic, especially in older runners. “Four years doesn’t seem like a significant change, but it wasn’t known you could do that before,” Manisty says. Additionally, the systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) blood-pressure measurements dropped an average of four and three points for each runner.
The researchers excluded people with high blood pressure; so, while Manisty says the results suggest that running might help alleviate blood vessel stiffening from hypertension, it’s something they’ll have to investigate further. The data also don’t indicate whether there’s a minimum or maximum amount of activity that would improve blood vessel elasticity.
For those who would rather not run, it’s possible the benefits extend to other cardiovascular exercises like cycling, Manisty says — particularly if someone is training with a goal in mind, as those workout regimens tend to be more successful.
And if “marathon training” still sounds intimidating, Manisty points out that finishing times were about half an hour slower than the average pace. “This is running for health benefits for normal, real-world people running real-world marathons,” Manisty says.