Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about their running habits, and researchers kept track of those who died during the study period.
The researchers discovered that people who didn't run had a life expectancy three years less than that of runners. Running was linked to a 30 percent lower risk of death from any cause and a 45 percent lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke, compared to no running.
Even less-avid runners received significant benefits. Running a minimum 30 minutes to 59 minutes each week -- which equates to just 5 to 10 minutes a day -- was associated with a 28 percent lower overall risk of death and a 58 percent reduced risk of death from heart disease, compared with no running.
"The mortality [death] benefits in runners were similar across running time, distance, frequency, amount and speed," Lee said. The benefits held firm even after the researchers took into account for factors such as weight, smoking, drinking or health problems.
However, runners need to keep at it. Persistent runners -- those who had been running regularly for an average of six years -- had the greatest benefit, the study authors found.
Improved heart and lung function appears to be key to running's health benefits, Lee said. Runners in the study had 30 percent better fitness than nonrunners, and their fitness increased with the amount of time they spent running.
Dr. Michael Scott Emery, co-chair of the American College of Cardiology's Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council, found it "a little surprising that 5 or 10 minutes of running had such an impact on health."
Emery, a cardiologist in Greenville, S.C., said, "This shows your biggest bang for the buck is just getting up and doing something, even if it doesn't meet current guidelines. Even a little bit is better than zero."
People might gain similar benefits from walking the same distance for a longer period of time, he suggested.