When I heard that a relative I loved very much had died by suicide, my first impulse was to change into running clothes and go for a run. I don’t think I had ever run so fast, certainly not up that challenging hill by my house. I didn’t slow down until the sobbing overtook me as my grief and pounding heart collided and I gasped for breath. The only reason I made my way home when I did, after 4 or 5 miles, was that my husband was following behind me and I didn’t think he’d appreciate if I pulled a Forrest Gump run on him. But that was what I wanted to do. I felt a primal urge to keep on running, pounding out the bewilderment, shock, anger, and deep loss with every step.
The moment I heard the awful news, which came out of nowhere because I hadn’t known she was even struggling with depression, my reaction was a very physical one. It was a year ago, but I still remember the sensation in my body that was, I now recognize, the typical Fight/Flight response as my body was intensely restless and before going for the run, I stood in my kitchen and realized I had no idea what to do. And my next thought was,
I have to RUN.
When it comes to brain health and emotional wellbeing, it’s pretty common knowledge (I hope!) by now that exercise is extremely effective in preventing, and as part of a treatment plan, for depression, anxiety, and most if not all other forms of brain health issues. I honestly never understood why OB/GYN’s would prescribe sedentary recovery for 6 weeks post-partum, because this to me seemed like a guaranteed way to become afflicted with Post-Partum Depression.
“Exercise is as effective as certain medications for treating anxiety and depression.”
Unfortunately, because of our culture’s focus on 8-pack abs and size 2 clothing, most people miss the mark on exercise. In the mindfulness program, Inside Out U, which I am teaching with my colleague Beth Rosen, RD, we emphasize the importance of considering exercise as a daily, throughout-the-day, series of movements. Not because we want to help you get those impossible abs you saw on Facebook or Pinterest, but because if you don’t move throughout the day, and have bursts of high intensity exercise throughout the week, your body becomes wracked by inflammation and your brain becomes unhappy, unfocused, uncreative, and essentially, like your body, begins to atrophy.
Recently, a dear friend of mine, Nelba, texted me: “Are you going for a run this morning?” This was one of those texts that took my breath away. You see, Nelba had bought a pair of running shoes a few weeks before but had no concrete plans to start using them. Her daughter Ana Grace had been murdered along with Avielle and their 18 classmates and 6 educators on Dec. 14, 2012, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Nelba had plunged into a depression and self-care was not even a thought, but rather, “How do I go on?” On this Monday morning when Nelba texted me, it was pouring rain and I had been relieved that I wasn’t going to feel compelled to go for a run since I was sore from an intense weekend of working out. And then Nelba texted me. I immediately replied, Yes. We arranged to meet within half an hour (I was afraid she’d change her mind). Nelba shared with me as we made our slow walk/jog trek through the rain, that this was the first time she had run since she ran on that horrible day just over 2 years ago, to the Sandy Hook firehouse to find out if her beautiful 6-year-old Ana was OK.
My first run with Nelba was six weeks ago today, and since then, she hasn’t stopped. In fact, she has roped in other survivors and we meet almost every day, this group of people who have survived trauma, abuse, divorce, great loss. We run, some run/walk, some walk. Some in the group are in the grips of brain health issues, either personally or closely related to someone who is struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, suicidation, addiction. We call ourselves the Smilepacers after the term I trademarked several years ago when I first started doing triathlons and I decided that I wanted to pace myself based on the smile on my face, not the time on the watch. I have frequently heard from them about how much this group is helping them, as they are finally motivated to move and take better care of themselves, and the regular exercise is helping them sleep better, make better food choices, and establish boundaries with friends and family members.
“What it means is that you have the power to change your brain. All you have to do is lace up your running shoes.”
One of the most powerful benefits of moving, is that whether we exercise in private, in public, alone or in a group or with a buddy, we are establishing connection. We connect with our body. Through experiencing trauma, or because we believe messages we hear from the media and the people around us, or because we are too busy to tune in and listen to our body, we at some point realize that we are no longer giving our body and brain the food, rest, play, meaningful social interactions and movement that we need in order to thrive. Exercising can help us reconnect to what our body and brain need. Recognizing how tired we feel when we don’t drink enough water, how much better we feel when we get to bed well before midnight, how much more creative and focused we feel after an intense run or a yoga class, how satisfied we feel after sweating with our friends – this is much more profound than any meme on social networking sites could ever convey.
Now, when I run, bike, swim, and do Poga (the yoga + pilates class I teach), I am mindful of the fact that I do this as much for my brain as for my heart, lungs, liver, and other organs. I participate in events wearing a green tutu, green for brain health, for The Avielle Foundation, because I want people to realize that I am not running because I am chasing a PR, I am running to increase connection, to build awareness that pursuing an active lifestyle is directly beneficial to brain health, and to stress that we all have a brain so let’s start talking about this and leave stigma aside.
Please visit The Ana Grace Project to learn more about how Ana Grace's passion for life continues through work that promotes love, community and connection.
Please visit The Avielle Foundation to learn more about how Avielle's parents are working to prevent further violence and suffering by building compassion with a neuroscientific approach.
*Please note that I am not advocating exercise in place of other forms of treatment, or medication. Everyone is unique and there is no one-approach-fits all.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.