Would I still love running without that satisfying rush of endorphins?
During my recent parkrun tourism series I got talking to another runner who told me that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour aged 25 and can no longer experience the pleasurable endorphin sensation that most of us crave after a run. She told me that despite that downside, she felt lucky to be alive and able to run, and explained that she continues to partake in parkrun (when I spoke to her she had clocked up over 70 runs) to benefit her health and keep her body moving. She clarified that she still gets a general sense of well-being from completing each run, knowing that she has done something good for her body, but that she’ll never love running, she’ll just dislike it less! Hearing her story made me wonder if I would still be on this journey if I was denied the sense of euphoria that goes hand in hand with finishing a challenging run.
One of my best friends, and founder of Jiggle Fitness, Lydia Shaw’s favourite methods to motivate me through a demanding workout is the promise of some happy hormones flooding my body by the end of the class. She often quotes Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, reminding us that we are likely to be much nicer people to be around once we’ve finished a sweaty session that we were when we arrived. After all - “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands.” Although Legally Blonde may be fictional, the message in this quote is anything but!
I recently watched a TED talk by Wendy Suzuki that explains these brain-changing benefits of exercise. She recounts that when she first started trying out different types of exercise, no matter which activity she did, she experienced a feeling of exhilaration that kept her going back for more. She also highlights that these mood-boosting benefits are not only present immediately after a workout, but create long-lasting effects over time. I found it fascinating to learn that I am strengthening my brain as I strengthen the rest of my muscles, and that regular exercise – which leads to regular good moods – is also a significant factor in slowing down the onset of ageing in the brain, including diseases such as Alzheimer’s. All you need to do to experience these benefits is get your heart rate up – no fancy gym equipment required. If you were looking for a reason to go out for a run today I think you’ve found it!
Of course, there are other ways to tap into those endorphin stores besides pounding the pavements, such as eating chocolate or having a good laugh, so why do I still lace up my trainers and go out running in the pouring rain? I’m not just chasing those endorphins! Going for an evening run gives me a chance to absorb and then often let go of the stresses of the day, and I appreciate having thinking time without the modern life distractions that can be otherwise difficult to ignore. A morning run gives me a moment of calm and a chance to mentally prepare my to-do list for the day. Running releases clarity and inspiration as well as sweat and endorphins.
Alternatively, I often listen to fitness themed podcasts on a run. I treasure having time to focus on learning more about how to improve my strength and performance while I’m physically doing it – and it doubles the benefits of setting aside that hour or so as ‘running time'. I also love any opportunity to get outside – especially in the sunshine - and how easy it is to just grab your trainers and get going. There’s no need to cart around heavy equipment or use fixed indoor machinery. I choose to run to get a breath of fresh air and a dose of vitamin D – both of which work to enhance mood and relieve stress even without experiencing that lusted after runner’s high.
Other benefits of running such as improved cardiovascular fitness and reduced susceptibility to many diseases go without saying. When you consider just how good a run can be for your heart, joints and lifespan it seems like an easy choice to forgo the provision of endorphins when all the other benefits remain in abundance.
So would I still be a runner even if I knew I would never experience the rush of happiness-harnessing endorphins? I think it’s safe to say I would. But am I grateful for the feeling those exercise-induced mood-boosting hormones deliver? Absolutely!
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Jiggle Fitness classes take place on Sunday mornings at The Bridge fitness centre in Southwark, London.