Why We Should Run

Running makes us better.

I was tempted to write nothing further. A simple sentence sums up why we should run. In the last few columns I’ve explored why I run, why others run, and went on a tangent about running gear. In this issue, I want to convince those who aren’t running to begin. If you already run, well done. Together perhaps we can gently nudge the sedentary to join us.

Let’s begin with a few scientific studies on the benefits of running. A 2016 report by Researchers from the Department of Psychology and the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland stated, “It may be possible to increase the neuron reserve of the hippocampus – and thus improve preconditions for learning – by promoting neurogenesis via sustained aerobic exercise such as running.” I think that means running can make us smarter. So, better.

A study released in early 2015 looked at 334,000 European men and women over a 12- year period, and found twice as many deaths may be attributed to lack of physical activity compared with the number of deaths caused by obesity. Additionally, the American Heart Association states running can reduce risk of heart attack and stroke because of benefits including lowered blood pressure, controlled weight and reduced stress. Summed up, a sedentary life includes a greater number of risk factors than that of an active lifestyle. Which means running makes us physically stronger by helping us become resilient to that which can make us worse.

Over the last decade, several studies have shown the positive impact aerobic exercise has on our mood. In 2006, a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, concluded 30 minutes of walking can lift the mood of patients suffering major depressive disorder. Patients reported gains in “vigor” and “well-being”. A decade later, Brandon Alderman from the Department of Exercise Science at Rutgers University, led a team who published a report in Translational Psychiatry. Alderman and colleagues conducted a study on mental and physical (MAP) training, which combines mental training through meditation and physical training through aerobic exercise. Individuals with major depressive disorders who participated in the study did 30 minutes of focused-attention meditation and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. They reported significantly less depressive symptoms and ruminative thoughts, showing that running can improve our minds—making us better.

Reports and studies are released with regularity. Running improves blood flow, reduces inflammation, lowers levels of insulin, increases bone mass, improves mood, makes us smarter, helps us to live longer, makes us more productive, increases our chances of looking good naked (i.e. we’re fitter), and the list goes on. With such an expansive list of benefits, we shouldn’t need reasons to run. Rather, it should again become a natural part of our existence, like drinking water, eating and sleeping. According to data collected in the 2016 National Health Interview Survey, 51.7% of adults 18 years of age and older are meeting the minimum recommended requirements for aerobic physical activity of 150 minutes per week. Reading the report, it’s elusive as to whether this number should be taken as good news or bad. Based on the accompanying data on the continued growth of obesity (30.6% compared to 19.4% in 1997) and diabetes (9.4% compared to 5.1% in 1997) we can determine from an increase over previous years that this percentage is still a failing grade. Europe’s numbers are similar. As human beings, we’re failing. But, it isn’t entirely our fault. It could be that we are just being human.

It’s science. We’re built for preservation. When it comes down to a choice of expending valuable energy or saving it for emergencies, our brains choose to save that energy, to be sedentary until it’s critical to move. Fortunately (or unfortunately) from a movement perspective, we’re not going to encounter an aggressive cougar while sitting on the couch in our air-cooled homes. Therefore, the lounging conservative self-trumps the impetus to be fit and alert for any circumstance. Likewise, foraging 400-square-feet of a produce department at the local grocery store isn’t as beneficial as traveling several miles over varying terrain to collect the nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables of our past. The need to conserve energy for emergencies has, for the most part, become obsolete. Yet, by default we store it up. Our brains haven’t evolved as quickly as technology to replace our innate fight or flight, rest and recover, biological makeup with something adapted to our current environment, such as an eat sensibly and “move with purpose” blueprint. What was once a necessity in the sense of short-term survival must now be retold to us as long-term consequences through numerous scientific studies and an equal number of magazine covers.

At the end of the day, the studies are just numbers, consumable infographics, and motivating factors that science hopes will get us moving. At the beginning of the day, it’s on us to get up and get out there, knowing we’re wired for it, but also understanding we’re wired to resist. The reasons why we should run need to go beyond the science if they are truly going to have an impact. We must run to set an example for our neighbors, siblings, and our children. We must run for the collective health of the human race. We must run to put the proper curve in the bar graph—to improve the statistics.

We must run to diminish the need for the science that tells us we should run.