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Benefits Of Running: Reasons Why We Love This Heart-Pumping Exercise

Why Do We Love Running?

There is evidence to suggest that running may have been instrumental in making us quintessentially human. It relieves anxiety caused by phobias, reduces the risk of death, improves mood, manages chronic stress, promotes better sleep, and even prevents osteoporosis. Running is is also cost-effective and can be done anywhere.

Head to a park at 6 am and you’re bound to have at least one person in sweaty clothes whizz past you with earphones blaring a fast-paced tune. And if that or the track events during the Olympics have you wondering why running is so popular, we’ve got a few answers. Besides having a host of benefits, research has found that when it comes to humans, the roots of this sport run deep.

Humans Are Biologically Designed To Run

Running comes naturally to humans. Dennis Bramble from the University of Utah and anthropologist Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University link this phenomenon to the human anatomy. They postulated that we look the way we do because our ancestors were more likely to survive if they could run. This included the need to run to pursue their prey before they invented weapons like bows, arrows, nets, and spear-throwers and to beat hyenas and other scavengers to scavenge carcasses of dead animals, as scavenging was an easier and more reliable option to find food.

And their theory went against the belief that running was a byproduct of bipedalism or the ability to walk on two legs. The researchers argued that there were about three million years of bipedal walking by our ancestors–the australopithecines–without them ever looking like a human. If natural selection had not favored running, we would have looked a lot like apes still, they say.1 Keeping in line with this, here are all the changes seen in Homo erectus, which evolved 1.9 million years ago.

  • Human heads are stabilized via the nuchal ligament in the neck, which is present only in species that run, and they have a complex vestibular system that becomes immediately activated to ensure stability while running.2
  • The insertion on the heel bone for the Achilles tendon is long in humans, increasing the spring action of the Achilles3
  • Humans also have relatively long legs and a huge gluteus maximus muscle.4

It was in the 1960s that running (or more specifically jogging) started emerging as a mass physical fitness practice in America. Studies show that it was configured as a counter to the ill-effects of the sedentary habits that arose as a result of industrialization and urbanization. But that isn’t the only benefit it offers. Here’s a reckoner of all the benefits that putting on your running shoes every day will give you.5

1. Reduces The Risk Of Death

Running is one of the most efficient ways to burn calories. For every mile you run, you burn about 100 calories and running at a 10 percent incline will double your calorie burn.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, running, even five-10 minutes a day, at slow speeds, even slower than six miles per hour, is associated with markedly reduced risks of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease.6

Running can help in a number of ways in addressing both state and trait anxiety. One of the first things a person undergoing a panic attack is advised to do is breathe deeply. Shallow breaths only compound the problem. Regular running has a positive effect on your breathing pattern. As an aerobic activity, it increases your aerobic capacity, that is your ability to take in more oxygen and use it efficiently. Alongside that it normalizes the heart rate and the blood flow. Once blood circulation improves, the symptoms of numbness or tingling also subside. The endorphins and the stress-alleviating hormones running triggers also do their part in checking the bad effects of cortisol. Here are various ways running helps alleviate anxiety:

2. Relieves Anxiety Caused By A Phobia

Research states that running can treat several types of phobia, which produces a physiological reaction like anxiety does. This is because most popular treatments for phobias include the respiratory relief technique, in which breathing deeply and slowly after a period of restricted breathing increases the carbon dioxide concentration in the blood and the fluid in the brain and the spine. This, in turn, has a tranquilizing effect.7 Here’s all the types of phobia your morning run can help.

  • Agoraphobia: In one study, patients with phobia of open spaces (agoraphobia) were made to run till they were almost out of breath and then made to walk or run through an area where their anxiety was naturally aroused. The experiment helped diminish their anxiety.8
  • Phobia of high-level lavatory cisterns: In another study, patients with a phobia of high-level lavatory cisterns were treated in the same way and were made to enter a situation they usually feared after running vigorously till the limit of their toleration. Their phobia was cured in just five sessions.9
  • Elevator phobia: In yet another case study, a person with an elevator phobia was made to jog such that it left her fatigued and out of breath, with her heart rate increased and her legs weak, all of which were symptoms she associated with her phobia. She was then made to ride an elevator. The process was repeated for taller buildings until she got rid of her phobia fully.10 Though this particular case involves jogging, the effect would have been similar, and probably more rapid, had running been used as part of therapy.

3. Improves Mood

Running increases blood circulation to the brain and influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that regulates physiological processes in your body, such as reactions to stress and regulation of mood and emotions. Studies have found that aerobic exercises such as running and even jogging trigger the release of endorphins, popularly referred to as happy hormones and monoamines, the neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in arousal, emotion, and cognition, and thus improve mood and combat anxiety and depression.11 Besides, exercise in general reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.12

4. Manages Chronic Stress

An animal study on the benefit of exercise on mental health showed that wheel running had an effect on the brain of mice. When they were subjected to uncontrollable stress in the form of tail shocks, which usually induces depression- or anxiety-like behavior, mice that had six weeks of running could resist the shock better.

This is because running promoted neuroplasticity in the mice’s striatum, a part of the brain that is concerned with regulating voluntary movements, learning, habits, and cognition—that is, exercise allowed the neurons in the striatum to adapt their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment caused by injury or disease. This study showed that running enhances stress resistance and can protect against its harmful effects.13

5. Improves The Quality Of Sleep

Studies have found that running every morning for 3 weeks will help you sleep better. It lowers stress and normalizes the sleep-wake cycle by increasing sleep-inducing hormones like serotonin, growth hormone–releasing hormone (GHRH), and thyroid hormones. The drop in your body temperature after a run might also bring in restful sleep so you could opt for a quick night jog as well.14

6. Strengthens Knees

It is assumed that running increases the risk of knee osteoarthritis, a joint disease that’s caused by the breakdown of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. However, research has found that running, in fact, strengthens the knees by thickening the cartilage around the bone.15 According to one study, runners had half the incidence of osteoarthritis as compared to walkers or people who did other forms of exercise. Researchers attributed this to the impact of running which strengthens the muscles around the knee, the hamstrings, and the calf muscle as well as the fact that running leads to lower body mass index, which reduces the chances of hip replacement.

7. Prevents Osteoporosis

As you age, you lose the density of minerals in your bone tissues, especially that of calcium. This leaves you vulnerable to osteoporosis, a condition where your bones become brittle and prone to fracture. One study found that high-impact activities like running may have a greater positive effect on the bone mineral density (BMD) as compared to resistance training exercises like cycling. Researchers also noted that runners had greater spine BMD than cyclists.16

Another study presented at the European Congress of Endocrinology also gave more marks to running over other exercises. The researchers noted that an exercise that puts greater strain on the bones, like running, may improve long-term bone health more effectively than non-weight-bearing activities like cycling or swimming.17

8. Aids Recovery Post Radiation Therapy

Recovering from cancer treatment can be difficult, especially since radiation therapy leaves many patients with injuries. But running can help with recovery, in terms of both the structure and the function of the cells in the injured area. In fact, a three-month-long research conducted on mice found that after a medium exposure to radiation therapy for cancer treatment, running significantly restored the levels of precursor cells (or stem cells) that are ready to form new blood cells as well as the rate of birth of new neurons (or nerve cells). The study also suggested that running could be used in rehabilitation therapy of childhood cancer survivors.18

9. Improves Learning And Memory

If you’d like to improve your memory and learning skills, head on out and buy yourself a pair of good running shoes. Several studies have found that the heart-pumping activity has positive effects on the brain’s structure and function. More specifically, it releases cathepsin B, a protein that aids in the generation of new nerve cells or neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that aids the process of learning and memory.19 Studies that looked into this benefit were first done on rodents, then on monkeys, and finally on humans before arriving on the final findings.20 Throughout all of these studies, the individual who had the largest increase in cathepsin levels showed the largest gains in memory and learning.

In addition to this, running and being physically active every day not only keeps you fit as you march into old age but also slows down age-related brain dysfunctions. A large-scale study conducted on over 2,400 respondents over a period of 20 years found that signs of aging like forgetfulness were lesser in those who were more active while they were younger as compared to those who weren’t. This was determined through a memory test that was given to the participants 25 years after they were first examined. In the test, participants were asked to remember words from a list, and it was found that for every additional minute they had been able to run as a young adult, they could remember one additional word from the list.21

10. Improves Attention And Focus

Running can improve your attention span. In a study conducted at Spain’s University of Granada, researchers brought together 22 triathletes and 20 people with low aerobic fitness. Both the groups were asked to sit in front of a blank computer screen and react as fast as they could on seeing a full red circle. The triathletes had a faster reaction time as compared to the people with low fitness levels.  Researchers attributed this speed in reacting to stimuli to a better transmission of nerve impulses, or what can be called better neuroelectric activity. The triathletes also demonstrated a better ability to allocate their resources (in this case, attention) to the task at hand. This also indicates a sharp focus.22

11. Boosts Libido

Running and sex life might not always be used in the same sentence, but studies have found that the former improves the latter. One such study found that doing any kind aerobic exercise like running 30 minutes prior to having sex reduced the libido-lowering effects of antidepressants.  And considering the fact that running also improves mental health, this is a win-win situation.23

This effect extends to people who have low libido not necessarily because of antidepressants as well. This is because running regularly also boosts testosterone levels in both men and women. In men, it’s proven that higher circulating level of testosterone is linked to more engagement in sexual activity. Similarly, in women testosterone levels increase during ovulation, which is when they tend to feel more sexually aroused.24 This is why men who are endurance runners and women who exercised regularly for 10 hours or more every week were found to have more sex than those who didn’t.25 26

Note: Just as too much of anything can be bad for you, running for more than 2 hours a day can lead to a drop in testosterone levels. So be sure not to over-train.27

12. Promotes Faster, More Intense Orgasms

Running regularly ensures a satisfying climax. A study of over 5,500 Finnish women in their 40s and 50s linked regular exercise with better orgasm experiences.28

Another study on women on antidepressants observed that women who exercised 30 minutes before having sex were aroused more quickly and were able to orgasm faster and more intensely.29 This benefit extends itself to men as well. A study found that running regularly made men report improved orgasms and sexual function.30

13. Alleviates Erectile Dysfunction

1 in every 10 men suffers from erectile dysfunction. And if you’re one of them, running can help. Research suggests that since running gets your blood flowing it also fights erectile dysfunction.31

14. Improves Body Image

Our perception of our bodies greatly affects our sex drive. And studies have found that men and women who ran frequently were more likely to rate themselves higher in sexual desirability.32

15. May Lower Hypertension Or Delay Its Progression

A few studies have found that the higher the intensity of the running, the lower the dependency patients have on their hypertension medications.33 Besides this, studies conducted on rats found that starting physical exercise early on may delay the development of the disorder. And while further research is required to fully support this benefit, including regular exercise in your life is important for patients with high blood pressure anyway and running is the perfect fit.34

Lifestyle Benefits Of Running

Apart from the many health benefits mentioned above, running is a go-to sport for many owing to various practical factors. Some of them are:

1. Is Cost-Effective

Probably the only time if you take up running will be when you invest in a good pair of running shoes. Running is a simple sport when compared to its alternatives and requires little or no fancy gear. You do not need to commit to a monthly or yearly gym membership and shell out money for it.

2. Can Be Done Anywhere

As opposed to other sports, you do not need a prescribed place to start running. You do not need to go to a tennis court, a golf course, a swimming pool, or a football ground. Wherever you are, you just need to step out in a pair of running shoes to get a good workout. Now, more and more cities are installing running paths to encourage runners and ensure their safety.

3. Can Be Done Solo

Running is also one of those few sports that does not necessarily need the company of a group. Of course, running with others may improve your performance and speed, but running solo also has its benefits. Some runners claim that it is a meditative experience, while others say that it is perfect for introspection and it does away with unnecessary competition. What more, you do not have to try and co-ordinate timings with your colleagues and friends to run. Wear those running shoes and get going.

There is no debating that running is beneficial to our well being. With so many reasons to take up running as a sport, why would we hesitate at all!

References   [ + ]

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Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.