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Everyone knows running is beneficial for your physical health—but only runners understand on a deeply personal level how nourishing it is for the soul. In fact, my good friend Jason calls running “nature’s Prozac.”
For me, after a second failed IVF procedure, my body and spirit were battered and broken. I anguished privately, not wanting to weigh down my friends and family with my grief. I tried to be strong, but between the vacillating hormones, feelings of isolation and receiving yet another friend’s baby shower invitation, I had reached a new low.
Running during fertility treatments is uncomfortable (and at certain points, prohibited), but after those treatments—especially the unsuccessful ones—it was an indispensable source of healing. Solitary hours allowed me the time to grieve, to think, to cry (behind my sunglasses). The miles left me with a feeling of catharsis.
So many of us feel the emotional benefits of running—and science shows this isn’t all in our heads. Andrew Wolf, the resident exercise physiologist at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, Ariz., explains three main reasons why and how a run can be so healing.
The scientific concept known as “metabolic brain” explains the link between a strong body and a sharp mind. “Simply stated, our ancestors did not exercise in the quest for the perfect bikini body but because they had to in order to survive,” says Wolf. “For millennia our ancient ancestors moved quite a bit, but they did so looking for food, shelter, medicine and safety, so exercise was coupled with higher cognitive function.”
As humans evolved, our bodies continued to connect increased metabolic activity (exercise) and higher brain function, thus making the two inextricably linked. “So in 2015, when I go for a bike ride, it has nothing to do with securing food or shelter, but my DNA does not know that,” Wolf explains. “Therefore, my body slips into a mode in which brain function is being put to the forefront, so I can be as sharp as a tack. This is why my best ideas and my best problem solving always occur on two-hour bike rides.”
The feel-good vibe you get from a run relies on a group of chemicals called neurotrophins, specifically brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is produced during aerobic exercise. “The interesting thing about BDNF is that the magnitude of the effect is contingent upon the intensity of the workout. This makes running an absolute, natural fit,” Wolf says.
“What typifies running is the fact that both feet come off the ground during each stride. This increases energy expenditure tremendously and acts as a perfect mechanism for making more and more BDNF.” There is emerging evidence linking increases in BDNF with increases in cognitive abilities, as well as reductions in anxiety and depression. “This may be the mechanism behind the healing powers of a good run,” says Wolf.
In terms of how running can affect feelings of confidence, Wolf refers to a concept called self-efficacy, which means your belief in how able you are to handle challenges—social, personal or physical. He says, “We are generally brought up being told that we can do anything as long as we work hard enough, but that is not entirely true.”
Wolf explains that no matter how hard he trains, he will never be able to outrun Usain Bolt. However, he says, “The magic of running is that you can compete against your own personal best and try to go a bit better without comparing yourself to others. This little dose of improvement has a tendency to improve self-efficacy and therefore help with your image of yourself and what you believe your capacities truly are.”