Running a marathon will no doubt be a New Year’s resolution for many.
While some do it to raise money for charity or tick an achievement off their bucket list, the challenge may also do the world of good for their heart.
Scientists from University College London found people who run a marathon for the first time see a four-year reduction in their “blood vessel age”.
This is thought to be down to the lower blood pressure and increased artery flexibility that comes with training and completing the endurance test.
“As clinicians are meeting with patients in the new year, making a goal-oriented exercise training recommendation, such as signing up for a marathon or fun-run, may be a good motivator for our patients to keep active,” study author Dr Charlotte Manisty said.
“Our study highlights the importance of lifestyle modifications to slow the risks associated with ageing, especially as it appears to never be too late as evidenced by our older, slower runners.”
Arteries naturally become stiffer with age, increasing the risk of heart disease, kidney problems and even dementia.
While high blood pressure drugs can combat this, not everyone with stiff arteries has hypertension.
Exercise is known to boost heart health, with “mass participation running” becoming increasingly popular.
To learn more about its benefits, the scientists looked at 138 first-time marathon runners who took part in the London race in 2016 or 2017.
The participants were healthy and ran no more than two hours a week at the start.
Their artery stiffness was measured six months before the marathon, when training started, and within three weeks of completing the race.
“Artery age” was determined by the relationship between the runner’s actual age and the stiffness at three points of their aorta, the body’s largest artery.
Results, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, suggest marathon training knocked up to four years off the runners’ aortic age.
Older males and those who ran more slowly benefited most.
“Our study shows it is possible to reverse the consequences of ageing on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months,” Dr Manisty said.
“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 looked at healthy people, those with high blood pressure and stiff arteries may benefit even more from the training, the scientists said.
While some with pre-existing medical conditions have died attempting to run a marathon, the scientists stress this is rare, with the “benefits outweighing the risks” in most cases.
“Given the profound implications of arterial stiffness for human health, this study is important and should stimulate further research to identify potential molecular mechanisms by which exercise reduces aortic stiffness,” Dr Julio Chirinos, from the University of Pennsylvania, said.
“In addition, training for marathons usually involves various concomitant approaches such as better sleep and dietary patterns, and in some instances, over-the-counter supplements, that may confound or interact with exercise training per se.
“More research to identify optimal integrated training regimens is needed.”
Professor Metin Avkiran, from the British Heart Foundation - which funded the study - told the BBC: “The benefits of exercise are undeniable.
“Keeping active reduces your risk of having a heart attack or stroke and cuts your chances of an early death.
“As the old mantra goes, ‘If exercise were a pill, it would be hailed as a wonder drug’.”