Why Running Can Be One of the Best Forms of Therapy

I barge through my apartment door after a long and exhausting day of teaching. I indulge in an overload of carbs that have taken the form of a crisp and salty substance. Maybe I’ll go for a run, I tell myself in between bites of my binging. The thought and motivation goes as quickly as it comes. Nah, I’m tired. I think I’m just going to sit on the couch, watch reruns of New Girl, and devour this entire bag of blue corn chips with my favorite guacamole from the grocery story. That will make me happy. 

For the last two years, this has been my typical routine when I come home from work. I feel tired, drained, and unmotivated. I make excuses to drink soda, to eat an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos (it is easier to accomplish than people think), and to sit on the couch and to watch mindless entertainment. Why did I do this? Because in the moment, it felt good. I’m the sort of person that can be both an overeater and an anxious starver. I have refused to eat food during many school days because I was too stressed to keep anything down, while I have also binged on a variety of unhealthy foods coming home from work due to this same stress. As many teachers (and perhaps other people) can attest to, teaching is a tough job no matter what age level you teach. It can physically and emotionally drain you and it can often fry your brain to the point where you grab the mayonnaise instead of the ketchup to put on your burger for dinner that night. As a first and a second year teacher, I found myself caught up in this whirlwind of chaos and constant pressure, and I used overeating and not eating enough as methods to cope with the stress of caring about my students (maybe too much) while also feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. When the fact of the matter was, I was deteriorating and self-destructing because I had neglected to take care of myself.

To add to this lack of personal care, I was in a long term relationship that had also started to feel more sedentary, and I had settled into the mindset perfectly described on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” that many couples develop. In the episode titled “The Rough Patch”, Barney gains twenty pounds and Robin looks like a haggard version of Hagrid from Harry Potter. I, myself, started to think along the lines of, “Oh, well my boyfriend will love me no matter what I look like so I might as well not feel guilty about eating this entire box of Cheez-its.” Yes, this is true. My boyfriend at the time didn’t just love me because I was thin, but I realized that relying only on the love from my boyfriend to justify my decisions wasn’t healthy, and that it wasn’t going to make me happy and the best version of myself in the long run. Self-love was absent from my life and I knew that I was only going to drop the pounds and regain my sense of self through realizing the importance of making decisions that derived from the purpose of creating and maintaining self-reliant happiness. I came to this conclusion after several before bed reflections where I think most people, tucked in and comfortable with quiet and reflective self-scrutiny, are given the opportunity to ask themselves, “Is this what I really want to do with my life?”

Each night I would come home and settle into being what I call more of a Watcher than an Adventurer. I would choose to watch reruns of shows I had already seen a million times and to ignore the possibilities that were right in front of me to go out and to experience the world (and I feel I am not the only one who has given into the Watcher effect). Today, we live in an age where screens rule our lives; where human interaction and experiences are being filtered through a screen rather than through an authentic lens, and where people would rather capture every moment at a concert or in the Himalayas through their screens rather than through their eyes. We live in a world where the value of experiences have been taken for granted and where cameras have merely captured the surface of experiences and, for many individuals, this has been deemed as enough. Sure, photographs of beautiful landscapes in the Swiss Alps and in the Andes may serve as inspiration for experience and adventure. But too many times have I been out to brunch with friends where I have witnessed countless restaurant goers who are physically with their family, friends, or significant others, but are mentally and emotionally invested in people and places beyond the confines of their current physical world. William Shakespeare once said, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” So why neglect the experiences right at your feet in order to imagine experiences currently out of reach? I’m not saying it’s unacceptable to have goals and dreams that you are trying to achieve. But your specific goals and dreams shouldn’t be hindering you from living in the moment.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite understood how I was wasting my own time yet. I had established a fixed mindset in my personal and day to day endeavors where I would make up my mind about something simply because it was outside of my comfort zone. Yes, in those moments when I was indulging in a delectable piece of strawberry cheesecake on the couch and watching the latest Law and Order: SVU episode, I often told myself I am happy, but it was happiness with a time limit. Later, when I crawled into bed and heard my stomach gurgling and berating me for the overeating and unhealthy substances that I had forced it to work through, those are the moments when I realized that my impulsive decisions based only on short term happiness were affecting my long term happiness. Yes, on the surface I was happy, but when I examined the root of my own emotional and physical wellbeing, I was as unhappy as can be. Was this all the seconds, minutes, and hours (after my days of teaching) would amount to?

Physical exercise had always been a huge component of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I participated in a variety of sports and my parents were always very involved in our athletic endeavors (meaning my mom was always that parent at our little league softball games that all of the other parents knew because they labeled her “The Screamer”). Throughout elementary and middle school, I participated in soccer, basketball, and softball, but by the time I got to high school I realized that these mainstream sports just weren’t the right fit for me. I decided to become more of a runner than a player and I fell in love with almost every aspect of being a runner. The only thing I hated about it was the pressure to compete. I hated the competitive component of cross country and track, but I loved both the warm and inviting athletic community that running allowed me to be a part of, and I soon discovered how running had become a beautiful and much needed sanctuary for my thoughts and my emotions.

When I graduated from high school and moved onto college, I used running as my main form of therapy. If I had a bad day, I went for a run. If things weren’t going well with the guy I was dating, I went for a run. If I felt stressed about a class that I had a difficult time grasping the content of, I went for a run. For the first two years of college, I used running as a way to clear my head and to wipe away the mind wrangling ghost that haunted my day to day thoughts. I always hated competitive running for this reason. My mind would always get the best of my before a big race and it was the fear of failing that always sent me into a ball of nerves and nauseousness. But after several conversations with my older brother and some friends I had made from the cross country team, I decided to give it a try. I look back on my junior year of college with fond memories of that cross country season, and, to this day, I consider it to be one of the best semesters of my college experience.

I had never felt more supported athletically, emotionally, and socially when I joined this particular cross country team. My coach didn’t berate me when I didn’t get a good time (he understood that we all had good days and bad days in races, just as we do in real life). My teammates didn’t yell at me when I had to stop mid-run because of a hip flexor issue. We got together before meets for pasta dinners. We got together after meets to celebrate both our victories and our losses. In my eyes, we weren’t just a team. We were a family and it was exactly the kind of competitive team I needed and wanted to be a part of. Much like education, I needed a team atmosphere and environment that promoted growth through support rather than the creation of pressure instigated by fear. Some of my best running times came out of that cross country season, and I can’t say that I have performed as well being a part of past and future athletic teams.

And here I am three years after my junior year of cross country, unhappy with the lack of motivation, passion, and energy that required me to maintain the level of fitness I had for so long. It wasn’t until a recent breakup that I forced myself to look at myself in the mirror and to reevaluate my true passions in life and my long term happiness. Part of this evaluation involved my decision to do away with the binge eating and to rekindle my passion for running. It’s been a month since I replaced a bag of chips in my hand with a pair of headphones and a pair of slippers with a pair of sneakers, and I have reached a point in my life where I can say I am genuinely happy with myself.

Not to say I don’t indulge in a piece of cheesecake or a handful of chips and guacamole from time to time now (hey, I’m still human), but I have realized the role that fitness plays in my life. Working out regularly has allowed me to feel better about myself in so many ways. I have now built in time to work through my emotions after a long and sometimes frustrating day of teaching. I have also determined the importance of eating healthier in preparation for running longer distances (and I need those longer runs to sort out the emotional chaos of my days). This combination has allowed me to not only feel better in my body, but it has also permitted me to appreciate how I look versus constantly criticizing my curves and my flab. Of course, even the fittest of the human species have their moments of self-doubt and self-scrutiny, but I think having a physical goal to work toward gives people the inspiration and motivation they need to look at themselves in a better light. When we set goals for ourselves, we appreciate the journey and challenges we had to overcome to meet our goals. Running a half marathon has always been a huge fitness goal of mine, and reviving my motivation and passion for running has allowed me to take (or run) one step closer toward this personal goal and endeavor of mine.

So instead of sitting on the couch eating an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream after an exhausting day of teaching and then wallowing in self-criticism before bed, I have spent the first 90 minutes exercising after each school day. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I still have my days where I’d rather buy a bag of my favorite chips and be a couch potato for the night. I still have my moments of running where I tell myself, You’ve gone far enough. You could probably stop now, as if doing any form of exercise for any length of time is enough to rationalize reverting back to my inactive habits. But lately I have become aware of a sudden and more prominent voice of reason emerging in my head that often screams at my self-gratified whispers to shut the hell up. It is in those moments where I want to give into my id (my instinctive wants), that my ego (my realistic perception) obtrudes my thoughts and says, “Yes, you could stop, but your body can keep going. It’s your id that is holding you back from making this four mile run into a three mile run.” And more often than not now, I listen to my realistic ego and I ignore my impulsive id.

Running (and fitness in general) isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t have to be for everyone. I don’t believe that all individuals should feel the need to be as physically fit as some of our country’s top athletes, but I do believe in the power of creating and maintaining healthy lifestyles. For me, engaging in a physically fit lifestyle translates to not only feeling better about myself, but to also feeling better about the world around me. Maintaining a healthy physical lifestyle has also helped me develop and maintain a healthy emotional state of mind; a place where I can have issues, but where I can resolve them in a productive and nontoxic manner. As I have mentioned in a previous post, art and writing have also been forms of therapy for me where I can also achieve this emotional balance through words and colors. And finding this balance is a journey that is different for everyone whether it is through playing sports, writing, creating music, skateboarding, and hell even through attending actual therapy sessions.

Have you ever heard the immortal saying, “Life isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.”? Yeah, it may be cliché, but I think this quote does render some truth. I often hear people (and I’ll admit even myself) go through life saying, “Oh, I just want this day to be over,” or, “I wish it was June already,” (when it’s only March). It is as if we want to skip all of the “bad” parts of life and we only want to experience the “good” aspects of our days. But life without challenges wouldn’t be much of a life at all. We would have little to celebrate, little to achieve, and little to be proud of. It is in these moments of struggle that I feel we truly find ourselves as individuals, and running (despite how big or how small the hill is and despite how short or how long the trail is), has given me an opportunity to overcome challenges in my life physically and emotionally that have made me a stronger, happier, and more positive human being on this planet. And you know what the best thing about running is? It’s a free form of therapy that can liberate the hearts, minds, and souls of fitness enthusiasts like me.

With that said, I think I’ll go for a run!

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2 thoughts on “Why Running Can Be One of the Best Forms of Therapy

  1. Staying active when you work throughout the day is sooo hard! I completely understand your struggles. Personally, the only way I can keep my butt in shape is by working out to reach a goal. Like, earlier this month I ran in a 5K and so I made myself start training nearly two months before. I knew I had to go run almost every day, otherwise I wouldn’t do well at the 5K. You just have to find what works for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That makes a lot of sense and I definitely agree! I’ve actually set the goal to run a half marathon this coming spring and I definitely think it has helped me be more regimented in my desire to be more fit. Thanks for reading my post!

      Like

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