Alexi Harding, Running, Mental

Cognitive Benefits of Running

It is nice to change things up a bit. When I run outdoors I’m usually accompanied by throngs of runners as we circle the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. It’s close to my apartment and it’s a quick 1.3 mile run if I need to build up some energy before I go into the office. Today I happen to be in Florida….finally…..outdoor weather above 50 degrees…..and it’s relaxing to have a little solitude…but as I ran by what seemed to be endless channels of lakes I had a discomforting thought “If an alligator exited these waters and came after me, could I beat it?” I smiled at a security guard when I ran by his post and thought “Well….if I couldn’t beat it, I could certainly beat the guard….and that would buy me some time” ☺

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental
Ten years ago I would not have been so confident….not about the guard of course…but about my own running ability. I was never the athletic type. For me, sprinting involved running from my current bar to the next bar. This all changed in 2003 when my girlfriend at the time, a photographer, told me over drinks she needed a male model for her Banana Republic photo shoot. I of course volunteered, but to my horror she unhesitatingly replied “Baby, I love you but have you seen your belly?”
That night I didn’t sprint to the next bar. I went home instead to absorb the humiliation alone. I felt embarrassed. I felt undesirable. Then I decided to fight back. I am the captain of my fate. I am the master of my soul. If I did not want to feel this way then I had to do something about it!

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental

The next day I walked past Banana Republic on 86th street and went into Equinox on 85th street. I paid for a one-year membership in advance to limit any chance I might try to back out and then I got to work. At first I tired easily. Within twelve minutes I was breathless and I felt foolish for even trying to be the next Asafa Powell. But then it occurred to me that all the other people at the gym had to start somewhere. They were not instant athletes. I had just seen a Star Trek episode where even Data was beaten at Stratagema until he figured out the right approach….so I had to figure out what all these other people knew that I did not.
Over the course of the next year I sprained my ankle, broke 3 toe-nails and hurt my neck, but that taught me the importance of proper shoes and I looked at the posture of others around me to learn proper form which would allow me not to tire so easily. I chose equipment near the mirror in order to analyze my form so that I could adjust it to that of others in the gym who were exhibiting superior performance. Ultimately, the belly fat went away but by then my mind (and my aspirations) were on a higher plane. The true benefit of the experience was not the weight loss, but the discipline that had been instilled in me to bring about that weight loss. I had started running thinking of it purely as a physical challenge but it is in fact a mental challenge. I am reminded of people who walk on hot coals. For years, they have said the same thing; training their minds was the key to their success.

Alexi Harding, Running, Mental

As running is now a permanent part of my life I have bolstered my gym routine with an educational component, so I am always reading about new methods and watching videos in an attempt to improve my own technique. I came across a Forbes article a couple of years ago “How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow” which details running’s substantiated effect on “neurogenesis.” Neurogenesis refers to the brain’s ability to generate new cells. What’s more is that neurogenesis is prominently associated with endurance exercise (such as jogging). While the exact reasons behind this association is not known, evidence of the correlation exists. To elaborate, it has been demonstrated that “exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 which is released into our blood as we sweat.” Eventually, this increased presence of FNDC5 facilitates and incites additional production of BDNF, another protein. It is this BDNF that is in turn responsible for supplementary production of “new nerves and synapses-the connection points between nerves.”

Effectively, when you run, your brain becomes stronger and quite literally grows. Your capacity for memory and affinity for learning increase to a noticeable degree. So, not only does your lung capacity increase and your heart’s resilience improve, but you receive added psychological benefits as well. Besides a tangible improvement in one’s health, running provides quantifiable mental enrichment that improves one’s quality of life both personally and professionally. While we are on the topic of brain functionality I thought some of you might like to watch this video. It’s not about running but it’s an artistic visualization of brain activity that you may find interesting.

It’s funny how one former girlfriend (yes, former) hurting my feelings has led to a lifelong love affair with running. I feel better, look hotter, and think smarter. What was a step back over ten years ago has become a 100-pace leap forward. Every runner has a story. This is mine. I suppose all I can say to my girlfriend of 2003 is, “Thank you.”

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