Research from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests running a marathon for the first time could have several health benefits. The study found that for first-time marathon runners, training and completion of the marathon was associated with reductions in blood pressure and aortic stiffening in healthy participants that were equivalent to a four-year reduction in vascular age, with the greatest benefits seen in older, slower male marathon runners with higher baseline blood pressure.
Arterial stiffening is a normal part of aging, but it also increases cardiovascular risk in otherwise healthy individuals by contributing to increased pulse pressure and ventricular overload, which are associated with dementia and cardiovascular and kidney diseases, even in the absence of plaque in the arteries. While blood pressure medication can modify arterial stiffness in established heart disease, more cardiovascular events occur in individuals without diagnosed high blood pressure.
Regular aerobic exercise is a lifestyle modification that has real-world implications, particularly with the growth in mass participation running as an increasingly popular form of non-prescribed exercise.
The research found training decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 4 and 3 mmHg, respectively. Overall, aortic stiffness reduced with training and was most pronounced in the distal aorta with increases in distensibility–the capacity to swell with pressure–of 9%. This amounted to the equivalent of an almost four-year reduction in ‘aortic age.’ Older patients had greater changes with exercise training, with males and those running slower marathon times deriving the greatest benefit.
The study shows it is possible to reverse the consequences of ageing on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months. These benefits were observed in overall healthy individuals across a broad age range and their marathon times are suggestive of achievable exercise training in novice participants.
Although the study only recruited healthy participants, those with hypertension and stiffer arteries might be expected to have an even greater cardiovascular response to exercise training.