4 Benefits of Running That Go Beyond Better Cardio

Photo: Getty Images/ kali9
When you talk to Erica Coviello, it’s hard not to get excited about running. The RRCA-certified running coach and personal trainer will tell you that running will help your aerobic endurance, improve your VO2 max, unleash the athlete you never knew you had inside you, and convince you to train for a half marathon.

Then she’ll tell you about the benefits of running that go beyond cardio. “Weight management, improved lung function, muscular endurance, strengthened bones,” she rattles off and laughs. “Shall I continue?”

It’s easy to think about it as a one-dimensional sport, but the physical and mental changes that occur when you’re running make your whole body stronger and healthier.

Experts In This Article

Sure, getting the heart rate up is its main draw, but there are so many benefits that aren’t touted as often.

Here, we talk to three experts to understand why running is the unicorn of physical activity and all the ways it benefits us beyond cardio.

In This Article

4 benefits of running that'll convince you to lace up your shoes

1. It contributes to muscular endurance

First and foremost, running builds great muscular endurance. Improving your muscular endurance helps give you the stamina to handle everyday tasks easily and reduces your chance of injury. It’s also great for maintaining balance and good posture.

Running involves various muscle groups, including your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, core muscles, and even your upper body to a lesser extent. As you run, your muscles adapt to the sustained effort and become stronger.

“When running, our muscles are like levers that allow us to move our joints to sustain the act of running,” explains Kat Campbell, DPT, CPT.

Additionally, your body begins to use oxygen more efficiently and deliver it to the muscles you’re using.

“During activity, our sympathetic system becomes activated,” Campbell says. “This system is responsible for shunting blood to our working muscles to provide them with enough oxygen to sustain a harder effort such as running. The increased blood supply gives our body the oxygen it needs to create the contractions that are needed to run.”

So while running won’t get you to bodybuilder status, it will work both your fast- and slow-twitch muscles to help them sustain a big load. It means a more functional body that’s not just strong cardio-wise, but muscle-wise, too.

2. It makes your bones stronger

You know those annoying people who tell you running ruins your knees or breaks down your bones? Yeah, well, they're wrong. The opposite is true.

“Our bones are stimulated by the demands that we put on them,” Campbell says, citing Wolfe’s Law. She explains: “Running requires us to accept two to three times our body weight. When we run, there is an increase in osteoclast formation. This is a cell that is responsible for breaking down old bones so that new stronger bones are remodeled. After running we have an increase in osteoblast formation, which helps our bones grow back stronger than before.”

Coviello breaks it down into layman’s terms: “The impact of running—that is, your body in constant motion, feet hitting the ground to propel you forward—creates stress on your muscles and bones,” she says. “Stress activates the healing mechanisms in your tissues. The healing process is what makes them stronger and able to endure more.”

As we age, this increased bone density is especially important to prevent or reduce osteopenia (the initial stage of bone mass loss) and osteoporosis (a more severe bone mass loss condition).

3. It improves your mental, social, and emotional well-being

Anyone who has been alive during the past running booms understands the concept of the “runner’s high.” There are brain chemicals that literally boost your mood during or immediately after a run. But there are cognitive and emotional benefits of running that go well beyond this perk.

Jenna Nielsen, MSW, LCSW, who works as a clinical social worker and therapist at ADHD Advisor, says she discusses physical movement with all her clients because she believes physical and mental health are connected.

“I encourage my clients to get more physical movement into their daily lives in order to decrease their vulnerability to negative, painful emotions, increase their physical health, improve their moods, and be more present,” she says “I encourage runners to try guided runs especially those that are meditation or mindfulness-based.”

She explains the benefits of running on mental health include a reduction in stress and an increase in neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (even if you don’t feel the magical runner’s high).

“Intense exercise for 20 to 30 minutes at 70 percent of your maximum heart rate for your age will significantly decrease anxiety and increase positive emotions for the next few hours to a day,” she says.

Nielsen says running can give you mental advantages you may not even know about.

“When running, you might not realize you're training your brain to continue to move forward or be mindful of what's around you,” she says. “It can help you be more present without realizing it due to focusing on your run, such as where you're going, what pace you're going, what distance you are going, etc.”

When working with clients, Nielsen also helps them understand that their goals should add to their sense of self-worth.

“I teach my clients that we need to have more value-based habits, such as ‘I am a runner’ or ‘I am a healthy person’ versus goal- or outcome-based oriented habits, such as ‘I am going to run a marathon’ or ‘I want to lose 10 pounds.’”

Running is a great catalyst for social health, too, whether that means time for yourself or with your run squad.

“There's also something about running that transcends physiology,” Coviello says. “Maybe it’s the time you give yourself to sort out your to-do list, reflect on your day, or solve a problem. For [parents], it might be their only alone time. For people with high-stress jobs, it’s their way to decompress. For others, maybe they run with friends and it’s their opportunity to socialize. If you're into racing, it can satisfy your competitive nature. There are so many things about running that go beyond the physical act that add value to our lives.”

4. It promotes whole-body health

No matter how fast or far you go, running can have tremendous benefits to your health. Running can help with quality sleep, weight management, and giving your immune system a boost, Coviello explains.

What’s particularly interesting is that the science and running community thought that long, strenuous bouts of running would suppress the immune system, but this myth was debunked by research, the first being a comprehensive study published in Frontiers. Now we know our immune system is strengthened by running (or any physical activity) so long as we get enough rest and recovery.

Campbell adds that running can lower our blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and decreases our chances of diabetes 2by improving your ability to utilize glycogen (the sugar stores in your body).

Running recovery tips to improve your miles and prevent injury

With all these studies and experts touting the benefits of going for a jog, you might think runners are the picture of perfect health. While many are, it’s important to note that you can't make the most of the improved fitness without adequate recovery time.

“In both the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, once you've adapted to a certain level of stress, you can push harder, go faster, and the cycle continues,” Coviello says. “The key for most runners is to really learn to nail the recovery. Without that, your body stays in a state of stress, can’t adapt, and you find yourself either trapped in a plateau or battling injury.”

Just as you train your body to run, training yourself to take rest days is an essential skill to learn. If you’re a runner who is running every day, you might want to back off and do cross-training workouts at last two days per week.

The key takeaway? Running’s benefits go far beyond improved cardio. From muscular endurance to better bone density to mental and emotional improvements, running can change your body and mind to have you feeling your best.


1. Is it good to run every day?

While it’s tempting to think that daily miles will make you super healthy, Campbell says rest days our essential for health and injury prevention.

“As a physical therapist, I do think it's important to have the time to recover from the loads placed on our body,” Campbell says. “I always recommend at least one rest day per week, especially if you're training really hard for a race and shooting for performance goals.”

2. How many minutes per day should you run to get the max amount of benefits?

The amount of time you spend working out will vary from person to person and depend on your goals, but Campbell explains what you should aim for.

“The general activity guideline for exercise says that someone should go for 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week,” she says. “This means at minimum, running 25 minutes three times per week if thats all the cardio you do.

You should also be strength training twice per week. But, generally more is better as long as you safely work up to that and don't do too much too soon.”

3. Can you get the same benefits of running from walking?

Walking is another amazing form of physical activity that has similar benefits to running.

“The processes I talked about are more intense with running when compared to walking, so while you may see some similar benefits, it’ll be to a lesser extent and may take longer,” Coviello says. “You’ll burn calories quicker and in higher quantities with running, so it’s more effective in the weight management department. You get more vigorous cardio minutes in, so your heart gets a better workout.”

However, she acknowledges that when it comes to walking versus running, the former is more accessible to people, especially beginners. If you’re interested in transitioning from walking to running, consider the run-walk-run method, where you add brief intervals of running during your walk.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Campbell JP, Turner JE. Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan. Front Immunol. 2018 Apr 16;9:648. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2018.00648. PMID: 29713319; PMCID: PMC5911985.
  2. Wang Y, Lee DC, Brellenthin AG, Eijsvogels TMH, Sui X, Church TS, Lavie CJ, Blair SN. Leisure-Time Running Reduces the Risk of Incident Type 2 Diabetes. Am J Med. 2019 Oct;132(10):1225-1232. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.04.035. Epub 2019 May 17. PMID: 31103650; PMCID: PMC6832784.

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