I am assuming that you have decided to go ahead and read this article because you have some degree of interest in exercise and workout, although you may not have been able to indulge in it with the discipline or rigor that you would like to, for whatever reason – time, intent, sheer laziness, plain bored, inclement weather, force majeure, or whatever fresh hell came your way!
By the way, speaking of the elusive ‘I have no time to exercise’ theory, I have always wondered what people do with all the extra time they save by writing “K” instead of “OK”… and just as I got the hang of the fact that “OMG” stands for “O My God”, there came “OMW”- which apparently means “On My Way”!
Anyway coming back to the point, as a runner I am always biased towards running as one of the best forms of exercise or aerobic activity. However, in the event that you are not a huge fan of running (and find it mind-numbingly boring!), you could press Ctrl F and replace the word ‘run’ with ‘aerobic activity’ or ‘cardio’ and this article would be just as relevant. At places, I have used these terms interchangeably.
We have often heard runners claim that running clears their head and the post-run feeling is simply sensational and ‘something else’! Having run now for a few years, I can safely tell you that running is indeed a great and complete workout – for the body as well as the mind!
I took to running about four years ago and whilst I embarked on it with the pure-play intent to lose weight back then, I realized over a (short) period of time that its benefits are more far-reaching than that. Running, done the right way with the right technique (simple dos and don’ts – no rocket science here!) can be therapeutic in more ways than one.
As anecdotal as it may sound, each time I know I have a harrowing day ahead of me, or have to deal with a conundrum of sorts or there’s decision making lying ahead of me, I always prefer to preface it with a run. Running clears my mind, it allows me to see through the haze, the noise, aids cogent thinking and I have never regretted a decision that I have made as a result!
So what really happens when one goes for a run or indulges in an aerobic activity (take your pick – the menu is immense: Zumba, Pilates, jump rope, brisk walk, HIIT, spinning, stairs, cycling, tennis, football, squash…) you ask?
To answer the question, let’s divide it into two parts and then I will try and crystallize it as far as possible:
- How does Running aid mental health?
- How does Running aid physical health?
How Does Running Aid & Impact Our Mind and Mental Health?
Running is an intense aerobic activity and when we embark on and indulge in it for a period of time, a few things start to come to in to play:
- An aerobic exercise like running leads to increased blood flow to the brain. This increased blood flow leads to new cells and neurons being formed (called neurogenesis) in the hippocampus region of the brain. This region of the brain is in charge of learning, memory and tactical functions.
- Additionally, this increased blood flow and neurogenesis benefits and ‘nourishes’ the surrounding prefrontal cortex (or parts of it) of the brain as well. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of strategic functions like planning, decision making, cognitive behaviors, personality etc.
- Furthermore, when we embark on a run, just like our body, our mind ‘runs along’ as well and often times gets carried away with innumerable distractions around – so whether it is coming across people in the park or gym, appreciating nature in its glory – the trees, birds, animals (hey, did you just notice a squirrel crossed your path?), water body, puddles, fountain, kids giggling away or playing, your neighbors, the strangers, the dog barking, the breeze caressing your face (and soul), raindrops touching you, the list is endless. This ‘mindless’ distraction (if you like) makes a compelling case and takes your mind and awareness along with it. Said another way, your brain gets a much – needed (and well deserved!) break from the worry(ies) and thoughts that it has been harboring and grappling with.
- Additionally, don’t forget that the many happy hormones in our body start to kick in as well. After about 20 minutes or so of undertaking the aerobic activity, the ‘good’ hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, endorphin etc. take precedence over the ‘bad’ ones such as adrenalin and cortisol, and their effect starts to unfold. You experience a heightened feeling of wellbeing and positivity as a result (runner’s high, anyone?)
- And last but not the least, as someone once said, ‘It is hard to run and feel bad for yourself at the same time’. So now that you are out running at a certain pace and rhythm and are seemingly enjoying it thanks to the distractions around, your brain decides to finish the task in hand (i.e., run) first and then get back to dealing with the stress/issue in hand.
So, you see how a combination of factors – your newly charged and nourished brain, your happy hormones, your nicely stretched brain muscles and nerves, the surroundings – all come together and relax your brain (without you even realizing it often times!). As a result, when you are ready to resume thinking and dealing with the issue or stress in hand, lo and behold…. you now look at it with a whole new perspective! You are now able to deal with it in a more informed way. You use that mental clarity acquired as a result to make a more guided decision. Most importantly and simply put, your brain is now relaxed and since stress and anger do nothing more than cloud and impair our judgment and clear thinking, you now see the issue in a whole new light sans any haze, pretense or worse still, rage and fury.
This newly energized/charged brain of yours will lead you to make decisions you will never regret! See how a short session of aerobic workout works it all out for you!
How Does Running Aid & Impact Our Body And Physical Health?
Having addressed how running positively affects and aids the mind, let us now talk about how it impacts one’s body and physical health.
Now that’s a seemingly easy one in comparison – right?! No marks for guessing that running (like any other aerobic activity) offers a host of benefits for the whole body, in general, and cardiovascular health, in particular. Aerobic activity aids burning of body fat (especially that super stubborn subcutaneous fat!), stabilizes blood pressure, balances the good and bad cholesterols (as if ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hormones were not a handful to deal with!), reduces chronic inflammation, decreases the risk of diabetes and so on.
What is also significant to note is that it addresses the all too common issue to plaque buildup in the body very efficaciously. Plaque is nothing but deposits of fat, cholesterol, calcium, sugar and other cellular waste that we tend to accumulate in our arteries and blood vessels over a period of time. This buildup narrows hardens and thickens the arteries, thereby compromising blood flow, potentially leading to complications such as angina, brain stroke, elevated levels of blood pressure, insulin sensitivity etc. Our body responds to stress with chronic inflammation and that is a key factor in causing plaque rupture. That’s when running or any aerobic activity aids in ensuring that the lining of the blood vessels works well to keep the arteries healthy and functioning properly.
The purpose of this article is to make you aware of the benefits of running or working out. Not to scare the living daylights out of you (although I must admit that if I did that, I would think of it as a compliment because maybe that will get you to move it!). So no matter what the compelling reason in your life is that is keeping you away from your run or workout every day for as little as 20 – 30 minutes five days a week, let’s try and get into a discipline of getting up, dressing up, showing up, working up (out) and doing this huge favor to our mind and body!
Otherwise look at the odds – running or working out 5 days a week for 25 – 30 minutes each is way-way easier than being subjected to a life of bland food, medication, visits to the hospital (worse still, hospital food!), doctor appointments, boring tests, listening to endless lectures and free advice from every man and his dog on what’s good and what’s not good for you! After all, don’t you see – the gains are way more than the pains! And at the end of the day, as with all things in life – if it is important to you, you will make the time; if it is not, you will make the excuse!
So the choice is yours – either you run the day or the day runs you (pun intended)! I would rather that you did it!
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About the Author
Namrata Singh is a corporate lawyer by profession based in Delhi and a mother of two footballers aged 9 and 12. She is absolutely fascinated with understanding how stress works on the brain. Namrata runs marathons and practices contemplative practices like yoga and meditation, which she strongly believes has the power of dramatically altering an individual’s entire paradigm with its subtle but significant approach. Namrata can be reached at [email protected]
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