For joggers, less may be more

Gregory Curfman, MD

Assistant Professor of Medicine, Former Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publishing

Jogging is one of those activities that seem to perfectly embody the concept of healthy physical activity. I know people who run for an hour or more a day. I admire their commitment to physical activity and sometimes envy their seeming good health. But a new study from Denmark has me rethinking the benefits of strenuous jogging.

Researchers with the ongoing Copenhagen City Heart Study have been following the health of more than 1,000 joggers and 400 healthy but inactive non-joggers. Between 2001 and 2014, 156 of these study participants died. Using the death rate of the sedentary non-joggers as a point of comparison, the researchers found that the death rate of light joggers was 90% lower than that of the non-joggers, while that of moderate joggers was about 60% lower. Here’s the big surprise: the death rate for strenuous joggers was no different than that of sedentary non-joggers. This kind of relationship is known as a U-shaped curve (see figure).

Association bt jogging  & deatIn this study, jogging for just an hour a week was associated with a significantly lower death rate. The most beneficial combination was jogging at a slow or moderate pace two to three times a week, for a total of 60 to 145 minutes across the week. These results were published in the February 5, 2015 Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Exercise activation

This is just one study among hundreds that have looked at the link between exercise and mortality. It certainly isn’t a stop-the-presses kind of study, nor should this study alone change the current recommendations for physical activity — 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. But it does make me think about how much exercise, and what kind, is best.

The Copenhagen City Heart Study results certainly help debunk the “no pain, no gain” myth associated with exercise. Slow- to moderate-pace jogging for 20 minutes three times a week should be a no-pain activity for many, and comes with a clear gain.

The current U.S. exercise guidelines have some strong science behind them. But they are daunting to many people, leading some to forgo exercise entirely. The message from this study and others is that lower amounts of activity that are manageable as part of a normal lifestyle can still have significant health benefits.

I believe that physical activity is at the core of what is called health activation. This is a process in which an individual actively thinks more about his or her health and begins doing things to improve it. Becoming more physically active focuses a person’s attention on his or her health better than any other approach.

How do we get more people “activated”? Letting more of them know that even a little bit of activity is better than none is a step in that direction. And if the Copenhagen results hold up, we can walk or lightly jog in that direction, and need not run full tilt toward it.


  1. Dr Steve Gamby

    I’ve written over 75 articles on walking individuals who need to do this exercise as their exercise. Most of them have recovered from a health condition ranging from arthritis, type 2 diabetes and low back pain.

    This program is extremely useful in their health status through life. The walkers all enjoy and prosper from doing this exercise. They find that they do not need any specialized equipment or any devises.

    All of the walkers have responded positively on their results, and are joyfully exercising.
    Have a good walk.

  2. CherylH

    As it is with most things, extremes are just that, extremes. The person who doesn’t run at all and the person that runs too much are both extremes and it turns out the healthiest place is in the middle. Thanks for sharing an interesting article!

  3. davidarjuna

    i agree!.. “Jogging is one of those activities that seem to perfectly embody the concept of healthy physical activity”

  4. Finn

    If you actually are “rethinking the benefits of strenuous jogging,” you might want to first familiarize yourself with the concept of statistical significance. To claim that there is or may be even an association, much less causation, between strenuous jogging and death is based on the statistically insignificant total of TWO deaths among strenuous joggers. This rate is indistinguishable from chance.

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