KELLY BREVIG COLUMN: The best therapy can be right at your feet
"I can't run." That was a phrase the 23-year-old me used in social situations when athletic people talked about jogging. The truth is, I didn't ever really try. I soon became disappointed with the person in the mirror who claimed only to run if a bear was chasing her. In a moment of determination, I found myself at the public library checking out a book called, "Running for Dummies." In my tatty apartment, I began running in place for short spurts, following the instructions until I was eventually out the door and running through the neighborhood. There was something euphoric about the freedom of running and I wanted to know more.
Whenever I could, I found myself starting conversations with serious runners. I would ask about the infamous "runners high" I had heard so much about. I was told it existed beyond the feel-good energy and lightened mood brought by a daily jog. Regrettably, my loyalty to lacing up every day began to wane. I eventually hung up my sneakers for other short-lived hobbies promising to take another stab at jogging someday.
Still fascinated by the effects of running and its devotees, I recently read an article in, "Runner's World" by Scott Douglas titled, "When the Best Therapy is at Your Feet." This piece described the actual brain science of exercise and why dedication to running can be as effective as antidepressants for those with depression and anxiety. Perhaps this is the reason why countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands use exercise as the first line of defense against depression. They are on to something.
While exercise in itself releases endorphins, well-conditioned athletes and even moderate runners experience twice the amount of the feel-good effect as those with a more sedentary lifestyle. A steady commitment to running can even rewire the brain. After just six months of a regular exercise regimen, the hippocampus (which is found to be shrunken in people with depression) enlarges. Studies using PET scans show that endorphins are not the only things at work inside the brain. Endocannabinoids are also found at higher levels in avid runners. These chemicals have an effect similar to a low dose of marijuana. Overall, the brain is designed to reward the body for hard work.
In a world where we want quick fixes and instant gratification, exercise can provide immediate satisfaction. It can augment depression medications and therapy and thus increase overall effectiveness and wellness. Sticking to an exercise program long after the newness wears off takes dedication but promises an even greater reward. Pushing through the period of "I just don't want to run today" is said to be one of the toughest things you'll ever love. Like all good things, achieving the ultimate "runner's high" takes time and consistency. Slow and steady wins the race. The two main reasons given for not sticking with it are injury and boredom. So, bring your upbeat music or learn a language, and don't push it to extremes. Having a personal coach or trainer on board can also be most beneficial.
While the science behind running is persuasive, it doesn't do any good until it's put into practice. Thankfully, our community is full of opportunities and places to run. We have no shortage of 5K and 10K races and the Blue Ox Marathon is right in our backyard. Beginner and seasoned runners alike can benefit from running and it's never too late to start. Currently, I am in the early planning stages of the 12th annual Run/Walk/Skate for Suicide Prevention, to be held on Sept. 8. I don't know if I'll try to take up running again, but my former self gently reminds me that "no matter how slow you go, you're still lapping everybody on the couch."
Kelly Brevig is Suicide Educational Services Coordinator for Evergreen Youth & Family Services.