Maintain cardiovascular benefits with fewer miles

Credit: Nathan Bilow/Allsport
I'm 75 years old and have been running for 20 years, including 128 10K races! Now I'm running just for my cardiovascular health, four days per week, four miles a day. Can I cut my running down to three days a week, four miles a day, and still get the benefits of training for cardiovascular health?

First, we'd like to salute you for your long running and racing career congratulations! The scientific literature and fitness experts tell us how much we need to exercise in order to obtain the greatest cardiovascular health benefits.

  • The classic Harvard Alumni study done by Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger found that the lowest death rates from cardiovascular disease occurred among those who burned at least 2,000 calories in vigorous physical activity per week.

  • The Cooper Institute recommends 36 to 45 aerobic "points" (see below) for high fitness and optimal health benefits.

  • The American College of Sports Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and the Surgeon General Report on Physical Activity and Health recommend accumulating at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. This is the amount of physical activity that burns around 150 calories per day or at least 1,000 calories per week.

    If you run about a 10-minute-mile pace and weigh approximately 170 pounds, this would mean that you burn around 2,080 calories (13 calories/minute x 10 minutes x 4 miles x 4 days a week). Your current level of activity would meet the criteria of the Harvard Alumni study of 2,000 calories per week.

    If you cut back to a three-day schedule you would burn 1,560 calories, still very beneficial to cardiovascular health, perhaps not the "ideal" of 2,000 calories burned per week.

    From the perspective of The Cooper Institute, running four miles in 40 minutes is worth around 15 points. Running this distance three times per week (15 points x 3 times a week) would still provide a high level of fitness and the optimal health and cardiovascular benefits.

    If the running mileage in your schedule were the only physical activity in your week, you would fall short of the ACSM, CDC, and Surgeon General recommendations, however, as a physically fit person which may not be the case.

    I would encourage you to run every other day because it allows your body to recover a day between running bouts (not a bad idea for anyone over age 50).

    If you want to make up for the fewer calories burned by not running the fourth day to meet the "ideal" of the Harvard study, then I would suggest walking two miles (or 30 minutes) on the other three days you do not run. You would burn a little over 500 calories by walking, bringing your total calorie expenditure up to the 2,000-calorie-per-week ideal.

    This level of activity would also meet the ACSM, CDC, and Surgeon General recommendations. It gives you adequate time for rest and recovery-three days of relative rest, and one day of complete rest.

    Running & Fitnews, Volume 20, Number 1
    Copyright, The American Running Association.

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