In a recent Predawn Runner blog post, Greg Strosaker reviews a recent article published in Runner's World about using running as an escape from some stressful life situation, and poses the question of what happens to motivation once the stressful situation has passed. This should be an interesting question for the thousands of runners who run to get a break from life's challenges, and it led me to consider why I am running these days. Is it really just that I get a lot of fulfillment out of the improvements I have seen in my health and fitness, or do I have other reasons to run as well? Am I running from something?
The answer may not be simple, because it could be said that I run for all of the above reasons. Certainly, I have been underemployed for almost two years, and there is a certain amount of stress in that that might push me out the door with my running shoes on now and then, but I also really do gain some fulfillment out of the improvements I see in my health and fitness. Unfortunately, neither of these things will continue indefinitely. Eventually I will have more work, and my fitness and performance gains will become more modest and infrequent. Then where will I be?
The simple truth is that there is no way of knowing the answer to that question in advance, but I can say that I started all of this when I had work, and an expectation for sufficient work to arise in the future, and still continued to exercise and eat right. So, I'd like to think that the things that drive me to exercise and perform now on a daily basis are secondary to some deeper, more important reasons that I do it - because it makes my life better than it would otherwise be.
Science has shows us that neurogenesis - the proliferation of neurons in the brain, central nervous system, and peripheral systems in the body occurs in response to exercise. strenuous exercise has similar effects on emotional parts of the brain as meditation does, as well. So, in addition to developing strong, more coordinate motor capabilities, the "happy" areas of the brain become better developed as well. So at least in this sense, it can be said that running and exercise isn't merely an escape from a stressor, but also a form of treatment that counteracts or balances the negative effects of otherwise being locked into a negative mindset.
I find it interesting that both meditation (intentional inactivity) and exercise (intentional activity), both have this kind of neurological effect, but note that the what they have in common is "intentionality." We do these things with a particular purpose, and therefore take conscious control over some key aspect of our lives. This is key, because when you boil it all down, what stress us out in life are things that are beyond our control. By intentionally trying to develop our minds or awareness (meditation), or intentionally trying to improve our strength, condition, or fitness, we focus on something that IS within our control.
So, I don't feel badly for people when they choose to run or exercise to overcome stressful situations in their lives. I applaud them. They are exercising control over things they can affect, rather than wallowing in self-doubt of self-pity over things that are happening around them which are beyond their control. In a sense, they are experiencing a modicum of enlightenment, and their minds, even their physical brains, are benefiting from it.
Will they stay motivated to exercise after the stressful situations have passed? Maybe not at first, but stressful situations have a way of cropping up again and again in life, and if this first round has taught them anything... They'll come back back to exercise.