Running: Effects on the Psychological and Physiological Essay

That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So, I ran to the end of the road, and when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason, I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going.

When I got to another ocean, I figured since I’ve gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going. When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went. My mama always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. And I think that’s what my running was all about. I had run for three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours. (“Forrest Gump 1994”) This idea of running demonstrated in the movie Forrest Gump spread a craze in the 1970s United States capturing the attention of many Americans.

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Since then, running has become the sixth most popular form of physical exercise evident in countless road races and marathons occurring each year throughout America (Satalkar). The public’s interest in physical exercise, and running/jogging in particular, has been a growing phenomenon. With its popularity, there has been a rising field in the research of the physiological and psychological benefits of running. This paper will outline and examine the various ways running aids not only in increasing overall health, but also increasing weight loss, stress relief, disease prevention, longevity, and mental well-being.

Running has a significant impact on weight loss. There are numerous studies done on the effects of different amounts of exercise training to body weight and body composition. One particular study by Slentz, spanning over an eight-month exercise program, clearly demonstrates that even without changes in dietary intake, aerobic exercise such as running or jogging affected participants’ body (31). There is a clear dose-response relationship with the increase in the amount of exercise resulting in decrease in the amount of weight loss, body composition, and measures of central adiposity (Slentz 37).

Overweight individuals in Slentz’s study who exercised a minimal level, as low as jogging 6 miles weekly, decreased their weight (38). Resulting data revealed a reversing effect of the non exercising control group for participants exercising a modest amount regularly. More importantly, reducing central body fat reduced total fat, which leads to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension (Slentz 39). Weight gain associated with aging can be prevented with even moderately intense physical activities, such as jogging, if it is regular and long-term.

Littman, Kristal, and White found the following results in their 10 year study of weight change in middle-aged men and women: increasing hours and sessions per week of high-intensity, moderate-intensity, and low-intensity activities over a 10 year period were inversely related to weight gain after age 45; associations were stronger for women than for men and for overweight individuals than normal weight individuals; obese women and men who participated in 75–100 min per week of fast walking gained 5 and 9 pound less than non-walkers, respectively; jogging, aerobics, and fast cycling were associated with weight gain reduction in most sex and age groups, while slow walking, swimming, and weight lifting were not (524).

These data indicate that activities such as walking, aerobics, or running performed on a regular basis and consistently over a long time period will result in a considerable relative decrease in the weight gain of middle-aged adults (Littman, Kristal, and White 531). The idea that aerobic exercise is associated with anxiety reduction is well-documented. In a study determining the relationship between the effect of a jogging program and trait anxiety – referring to the level of stress that people experience on a regular basis – the results are apparent: walking, jogging, and running is highly associated with a significantly greater reduction in anxiety when compared to non-exercising control groups (Gemar and Bynum 14).

An interesting finding in Gemar and Bynum’s study is that although reduction in trait anxiety occurred following both the 8-week jogging and 8-week weight training program, the reductions were noticeably greater with the jogging program than the weight-training program (18). In conclusion, aerobic exercise is a better source of reducing trait anxiety or overall stress than anaerobic exercise. A variety of benefits in regular physical exercise are evident for physical and psychological well-being in adolescent females with depressive symptoms. A randomized controlled trial of physical exercise among adolescent female volunteers with mild-to-moderate depressive symptoms was carried out by Nabkasorn and his colleagues.

Results established that a mild level of group jogging exercise not only improved physiological fitness condition but also considerably lightened the depressive state, reduced the volumes of urine cortisol and epinephrine excretions, and increased cardio respiratory functions (Nabkasorn 182). Physical activity for depressed adolescents increased self-efficacy, along with mastery and distraction associated with the physical activity, all of this leading to the alleviation of depression symptoms. In regard to urine cortisol and epinephrine excretions, they are used to indicate sympathetic nerve activity in studying psychophysical stress and depression. Physical exercise decreasing urine epinephrine is due to reduction of sympathetic nervous tension. Resting heart rate is also reduced after physical training, which explains the decreasing of sympathetically mediated cardiovascular response to psychophysical stress (Nabkasorn 183).

Increased depressive mood state being highly associated with stress, a plausible conclusion would be that even for those not in a depressive state, physical activity can help relieve daily stress levels. A study done by Coleman confirms the association between regular exercise and reduced risk of premature death in certain illnesses (551). When changes in physical activity levels were observed between a fifteen year period, there was a relatively high risk of death from all causes in participants who stopped exercising compared to participants who either started exercising regularly – in this case, jogging – or were originally continuous exercisers. Stopping regular exercise is associated with a decreased overall health and an increased risk of death (Coleman 552).

There is clear evidence of exercise slowing down the progression of a disease, particularly the Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have shown¬ that people in the early stage of this disease will suffer less shrinkage of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory centre, if they include moderate exercise in their daily activities (Birmingham 3). Many studies lead to the conclusion that regular walking is a free and effective way of slowing down the progression of the Alzheimer’s disease. Many studies conducted in the United States and abroad, all with dissimilar study designs and diverse populations, display remarkable consistency in the results of an inverse relationship between physical activity and coronary heart disease.

Paffenbarger and Hale studied longshoremen and found the age-adjusted coronary death rate for highly active individuals to be 27 per 10,000 work years compared to 49 for the less active individuals (qtd. in Ibrahim 136). Morris and his colleagues, in a study of the British Civil Service office workers, found coronary heart disease rates in men engaging in vigorous leisure time exercise was half of that in men who did not engage in any form of exercise (qtd. in Ibrahim 136). Running, as a vigorous physical activity, is hence an important factor in the protection from cardiovascular diseases. Jogging increases longevity and decreases disability in old age.

The ‘compression of morbidity’ theory states – and has been proven by James Fries – that by keeping the body moving, although people would not necessarily live longer, the length of time toward the end of life when they would not be able to carry out the daily tasks of living would be much longer (qtd. in Birmingham 3). Fries’ study of about 500 members of a running club and 400 healthy controls, all aged 50 or over, participants were asked to fill in questionnaires every year for as long as they were able (qtd. In Birmingham 3). Results confirmed not only that joggers were less disabled towards the end of their life with greater strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance that their counter ‘healthy’ non-joggers, but joggers also lived longer. This is yet another indication that jogging is a cheap and side effect free method that can replace biological drugs and new medical interventions in increasing morbidity and mortality.

In addition to the discussed benefits above, running can derive valuable psychological benefits. One of the psychological benefits of running on a conscious level is that one can achieve observable and verifiable success through progress that can be timed and measured, proving factual evidence of constructive results (Leer 21). This leads to a sense of motivation, adequacy, and accomplishment. Exercise in the form of running can dramatically convince a person of their ability to master a skill, which is vital in self-confidence and positive-outlook. Furthermore, engaging in running extinguishes anxious worries and replaces them with ordinary troubles such as sore muscles.

Through research, psychological benefits of running on an unconscious level have become apparent as well. Runners report unusual and profound psychological experiences during their activity. According to Leer, “the rhythmic and prolonged exercise of running induces dissociative states in which the functions of the right hemisphere of the brain are permitted to surface with all their intuitive, emotional, and creative powers… allowing the individual to come into contact with the collective unconscious (22)” This is how running helps the person sort out and rework unresolved conflicts as thoughts and memories seem to flood the mind during this time that ordinarily do not surface when not running.

Many anthropologists also agree that the “peak” experiences of runners reported as sensations of a “high” are due to mankind’s prehistory nature as humans were runners and hunters for millions of years (Leer 23). Moreover, preliminary investigations point to running promoting the same chemical activity in the brain parallel to the anti-depressant medication (Leer 22). It is clear that there is an obvious link between the psyche and soma or the mind and body, so it is natural that running would have such a great effect on the psychological. All of the discussed benefits can be obtained with a chronic running program. Furthermore, the body will also go through a serious of physical changes. For example, participation in such a program will result in a more efficient heart that meets its circulatory challenges at rest.

Resting heart rate will decrease by 5 to 25 beats per minute as the heart ventricles are able to accommodate a greater volume of blood and to deliver oxygen and nutrients with more time (Kravitz 48). A chronic running program will lead to lowering of the systolic blood pressure by about 10mm Hg, aiding in the prevention and treatment of hypertension (Kravitz 49). The body will also use fats more efficiently for the same sub-maximal task, using both carbohydrates and fatty acids to produce energy (Kravitz 50). In addition, running boosts the immune system with increase in circulating levels of interleukin-1, a stimulant of the immune response, and increase in the production of interferons, a naturally occurring protein with antiviral properties (Kravitz 51).

Another consequence of a chronic running program is the increase of the body’s resting metabolic rate, increase in muscle tissue, increase in fat-free mass, and decrease in fat weight (Kravitz 55). All of these contribute to alterations in body composition by burning calories and losing body fat much more proficiently. On top of the advantages of running discussed in this paper, there are many more benefits of running such as building stamina, fighting insomnia, strengthening bone density, improving appetite, and etcetera. This cheap and effective method that kills ten plus birds with one stone should be more than enough reason to put on your running shoes, stretch a little, and start jogging!