An Ode to the 5k

Few things in this world are certain. Will I make rent next month? Has my boss responded to my email? Did he like it? Will I live to be 100? 

Some things in this life are a little more certain. 

Socks. Shorts. Shirt. Shoes. Keys. 

Go.

Leave behind the questions, the anxieties, hypotheticals, sarcasm: bring on the pavement. 

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I started running because I needed to fulfill a gym requirement in high school. I continue to run because it dramatically improves my mood, reduces anxiety, and makes me wonderfully aware of my body’s abilities.

Over the past decade, an increasing amount of scientific inquiry has focused on the anxiolytic effects of exercise. Running has been shown to increase not only the number of excitatory neurons in a rodent, but also the number of neuronal dendritic spines and primary sites of excitatory synapses throughout the neuronal circuitry of the hippocampus (1,2,3,4).

The APA and ADAA have repeatedly published articles discussing the clinical benefits of incorporating exercise into psychiatry treatments (see here and here). In 2006, Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice published an article that suggested exercise could be a beneficial intervention for clinical depression. Michael Otto, a contributing author to that article, has become a prominent voice in the intellectual discussion around exercise and anxiety, most recently publishing the book Exercise for mood and anxiety: Proven strategies for overcoming depression and enhancing well-being (2011).

My personal experience aligns closely with the published academic literature: running noticeably increases my mood and sleep quality while decreasing my daily anxieties. Fortunately, I go for a run most days of the week. Sometimes it’s because I’m lethargic and know that a 20 minute spin around the neighborhood will get the blood flowing (endorphins aren’t mythical, they are fact!). Other days it’s because I want to have the feeling of accomplishment before I even walk into the office in the morning.

My favorite mental space for a run, though, is to run because my body wants to prove what it can do: be it a speedy 2 miles or a longer 12, there is something so wonderfully natural about running because of the longing ache of hamstrings or eager twitch in your quad.

Running is my way of proving to myself what I can do: push a little harder, run a little farther, crest the next hill before taking a break. And when you return home you’re not only a little bit stronger than when you left, but the chemicals and hormones in your body have responded positively: feel better, act better, perform better.

Perhaps start with a walk every other day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Increased heart rate doesn’t have to be from running – it can be from a brisk walk to the grocery store or a bike ride to work. But for those of you who do have a pair of dusty sneakers: science is behind you.

There may not be many truths in this world – and the hard truth about how running affects mood and depression is still unfolding – but all signs point towards a distinct anxiolytic benefit from cardio exercise.

Go get 'em!

References

  1. Duman CH, Schlesinger L, Russell DS, Duman RS (2008). Voluntary exercise produces antidepressant and anxiolytic behavioral effects in mice. Brain Res 1199: 148-158. 
  2. Herring MP, O'Connor PJ, Dishman RK (2010). The effect of training on anxiety symptons among patients: a systematic review. Arch Intern Med 170: 321-331. 
  3. Leuner B, Gould E (2010). Structural plasticity and hippocampal function. Annu Rev Psychol 61:111-140, C1-3. 
  4. Bannerman DM, Rawlins JN, McHugh SB, Deacon RM, Yee BK, Bast T, Shang WN, Pothuizen HH, Feldon J (2004). Regional dissociations within the hippocampus- memory and anxiety. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 28:273-283.