Friday, July 30, 2010

Run for Your Life

Washington Post Staff Writer Daniele Seiss discovered that when drugs and therapy failed to relieve her bouts of crippling depression, running was her way out. Since childhood, she has been haunted by nightmares and panic attacks. Nothing worked for her except running.

For years snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan suffered from deep depression. Now he runs 50 miles a week to keep the beast at bay.

Research credits running as the best cure for depression. Because the brain is connected to movement, everything the body does registers a "footprint" in the brain. In short, exercise, like jogging, changes the brain. Repeated physical activity enhances brain function which improves mood, self-esteem and well-being.

Exercise and the Brain

A definite relationship exists between exercise and depression.Exercise promotes new cell growth in the brain. If depression is a form of cell death, then exercise is the best strategy against this kind of neural paralysis.

Prolonged and intense running releases endorphins or brain chemicals that produce a sense of elation. These endorphins are probably the reasons behind the proverbial runner's high.

While jogging, the body releases phenylalamine (PEA), a neurotransmitter that stimulates mental alertness; it also releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (most commonly associated with antidepressants) that affect the mind in a positive way.

Not only does running release mood elevating neurochemicals, it also alters the rhythm of brain activity. The repetitive and rhythmic strides of jogging induces alpha brain waves, also known as the sensorimotor rhythm so often associated with meditation and the calm alertness of the "flow."

Running and Deep Play

This sense of peace and calm is what Diane Ackerman identifies as the purpose or the ultimate end of Deep Play, the engagement of body and mind in an activity that requires courage, concentration and a desire for transcendence.

Examples are the ritualized runs that native warriors make into the wilderness. The Zuni tribe runs 20 to 40 miles at a time. Crow Indians run to exhaustion as part of their appeasement ritual to the gods of luck and fortune. Something happens during these vigorous exercise rituals that push the participants into a higher state of consciousness, inspiring visions and insights, dispelling fear, doubt and depression.

Primitive men understood that it is the sinews that turbocharge the brain and that God is found in the body's movement.

That's why Daniele Seiss keeps running."I have figured out," she writes," that if I run at least four miles, I feel relaxed, positive and clearheaded, feelings that can last from hours to days. And if I do so consistently, I won't fall into a really dark state."


•Daniele Seiss. "Running For My Life." The Washington Post. September 15, 2009.

•Ross Tucker, Jonathan Dugas and Matt Fitzgerald. The Runner's Body:How the Latest Exercise Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer and Faster. Rodale Press, 2009.

© 2009 Mary Desaulniers

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