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Running from a scientist’s point of view: hating it or loving it?

Through this whole corona virus-lockdown ‘end of the world’ situation, a few things have kept my mental health afloat: coffee, impromptu ABBA karaoke performances sung with feelings, my cats’ habit of napping in the crook of my neck, and deep conversations about life, the universe and everything (yes, this is a reference from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

And running.

I love running. And yet, my first memory associated with running is me, aged 9, fainting at the back of an ambulance because I had to race despite suffering from bad respiratory allergies. After that, the dislike I had for running only blossomed into disgust because I was forced to do it at school.

I developed an impressive history of fainting. I badly sprained my ankle. I apprehended each physical education class with an anxiety that, I realise now, was far from average. I tried to get sick to avoid the yearly cross-country race with so much diligence that I got whooping cough. I was the friend who dreaded runs.

To this day, I still have terrifying flashbacks at the words “Cooper test” — a gym class test that requires running as far as you can for twelve minutes, uninterrupted. No offence, Mr Cooper, but who enjoys that?

Now I have a Spotify playlist dedicated to my runs.

But this blog isn’t to convince you to go and get your sports shoes on.

It is to explain how and why, sometimes, your brain and body need to be tricked into it as a unit, rather than as two uncooperative partners.

We will more specifically look into how negative emotions, or physical perceptions, can play a role into having a negative experience of exercise.

However, between my days of loathing running and now, I became a (neuro)scientist. Which makes it hard to deny that, objectively, exercising has its advantages.

Regular physical activity leads to several health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and enhanced insulin sensitivity, meaning that less insulin will be required to lower blood glucose levels. These are associated with decreased risk of developing cardiovascular or metabolic diseases.

And of course, your brain pretty much loves exercise, too. As described in a recent InSPIre the Mind blog, physical activity reduces the release of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as levels of inflammation, while promoting the production of trophic factors. Trophic factors are molecules supporting the growth and survival of brain cells and are also thought to underlie the effects of anti-depressants.

Essentially, exercise acts against a trio of ingredients forming a fool-proof recipe for depression: stressed, inflamed brain cells with reduced life support. It comes without surprise then, that regular exercise decreases symptoms of depression, as confirmed by a meta-analysis of clinical trials. Similarly, it also reduced the risk of developing dementia by 28% in a meta-analysis of prospective studies, likely because the recipe for dementia involves some of the same ingredients.

Is that why people are suspiciously cheery and upbeat after a workout?

You’re probably thinking of runner’s high, this euphoria sensation experienced after prolonged low-to-moderate intensity endurance exercise.

If you must know, yes, evidence points towards your brain literally being a little bit high. That’s because the brain has the wonderful ability to produce molecules very similar to those drugs people are taking. Except that it occurs in ways that do not require taking drugs. Isn’t the human body neat?

The most popular theory is that β-endorphins, your homemade opioids, are responsible for this by acting on brain structures associated with pain and emotion regulation. That would explain the “I feel no pain and I’m happily invincible” sensation.

However, opioids are not released after all types of physical exercise. Scientists aren’t fully sure they can easily get access to the brain either, since it is protected at medieval fortress-levels. This led researchers to discover that there was also a role of endocannabinoids, the brain’s own brand of molecules acting on the same receptors activated by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the active principles of cannabis, in this effect.

But… is exercise always this good for mental health?

While this can be true most of the time, there are many ways in which exercise and mental health don’t influence each other positively. For instance, exercise motivation related to weight and appearance is linked with lower self-esteem and more eating disorder symptoms.

While it may seem obvious that using exercise as a mean to look a certain way isn’t healthy, there remain numerous insidious ways in which we are led to associate it with harmful ideas.

“Fitspiration” hashtags on social media, used by some young users to set the “healthy ideal” they want to achieve, most typically contain pictures depicting thin, athletic girls and muscular boys. So much for promoting realistic body expectations.

How many times have you heard the sentences “No pain, no gain”, “Oh you only ran 3k? It’s okay”, “I don’t want to be skinny, I want to be strong” or, jokingly or not, “You’re such a wimp”?

Taking this into account, can we really expect everyone to have a positive disposition towards physical activity? Unsurprisingly, physical activity motivated by weight and appearance is related to decreased measures of well-being and exercise engagement.

It was also shown that that participants with a positive emotional response after exercise were more likely to continue exercising. This emotional response is determined by cognitive factors, including your perceived competence and expectations, and interoception, which is your perception of the internal state of your body.

This means that if you think you can’t do it, have unrealistic expectations or goals, or feel physically bad during exercise, you’re likely to have a negative emotional response and not keep doing it.

These factors become progressively more important in determining the emotional response as the intensity of exercise increases. For this reason, self-paced workouts would be more effective in maintaining participant engagement because they approach, but do not exceed, their ventilatory threshold, which is essentially when breathing becomes really laboured.

The influence of subjective and psychological factors on performance is even more widely studied in athletes, who despite enjoying exercise, must pay attention to their mental health in relation to their body.

Athletes perform better if they have better emotional regulation, concentration, and coping strategies. For example, athletes who were asked to suppress their emotions before exercising perceived higher levels of exertion. In addition to biological changes in the body and the brain, emotions, motivation, and memory seem to determine fatigue and perceived exertion levels.

Moreover, athletes can be at increased risk for mental health disorders depending on the demands placed on them. And because stigma is higher in this particular population, they are also less likely to seek psychological help.

However, the bottom line here isn’t that exercise is something negative because it can be associated with harmful ideas and behaviour.

Neither is it that everyone who doesn’t enjoy exercise should try and get started. Because maybe they tried and hated it. Maybe they feel negative emotions if they anticipate exercise. Maybe they haven’t found the right motivation, or the right environment that would allow them to start appreciating it.

The bottom line is that you should factor in and check in on your emotions and motivation when it comes to exercise. As beneficial as physical activity is for your mental and physical health, the relationship between mind and body goes both ways.

Personally, I started thinking that, perhaps, running wasn’t some form of hellish torture when my flatmate took me for a run, one evening, and at the right pace, I could do it. I didn’t feel as if my lungs were collapsing and nobody cared whether I did a kilometre or three.

Running became more regular when it turned out to be the best excuse I had to take a break from studying and to try to deal with all the emotions I had. If I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, on making sure I could take one breath and then the next, it was easier to process all my negative thoughts.

Now I run to give some space to intense emotions and preoccupations, take a step back and let go of what I don’t need. I run when I’m frustrated, when I’m stupidly anxious, when I’m angry. I run when I don’t know how solve a problem, when I’m disappointed one of my lab experiments didn’t work, when I’ve been hurt.

I ran so much that I now also run simply to enjoy a crisp winter morning.

I never run with hard goals in mind or with the pressure of having to smash my record. I don’t time all my runs because life is not a Cooper test. Mostly, I just want to run. (Alright, sometimes I want runner’s high too).

It took a lot of listening to what my brain and my body were telling me to eventually, find it in me to take the first uncomfortable baby step, to find a way of exercising that felt right and a reason to keep doing it.

So maybe, if you just wish you could enjoy exercise, but you really don’t, sit for a little bit with your mind and body. Think about how they respond to exercise and how they influence each other.

And in case you decide to give it a go, remember that pushing doesn’t always mean pushing your body’s limits. Sometimes, pushing is finding it in you to get up and try, to reconsider what you think and to learn how to work with your body, instead of against it.

Remember, there’s a lot going on underneath “just doing it”.


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