Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Training with the 3-lb weights

I spend a lot of time thinking about health: my health, your health, and the health of people I will never know. I’m a geriatric social worker and public health educator whose current work is focused in the area of dementia care, and am of the opinion that, right behind global warming, the Alzheimer’s disease pandemic is one of the greatest threats that we face today.

Wait, isn’t this a running blog? Hang on, hang on. I’m getting there …

I’ve been running since I was a kid, but while I’ve always understood that running is “good for me,” its health benefits have never been my motivation. When I started, it was just something that I could actually do, as an awkward and uncoordinated kid who was bad at everything else I tried. And after so long now, running just feels like a part of my genetic code. It’s a habit I’m grateful to have cultivated, as a person who cares deeply about personal and public health, but it’s just one option among many paths toward good health. And let’s face it: the physical act of running alone does not a healthy body make. As I wade deeper into my forties, I feel this more acutely than ever.

Our diet matters. I naturally gravitate toward a plant-rich, and reasonably healthy diet, but now feel much more directly the impact of my moment-to-moment choices. One less beer when I’m out with my friends now means an easier time getting up for tomorrow morning’s workout, and a few less calories for this less metabolically-efficient body to burn off. Our strength and flexibility matters. My lungs and heart love me for my running habit, but three decades of doing little else has left me with arms about as strong as boiled spaghetti noodles (and leg tendons and ligaments that are about as rigid and brittle as the uncooked ones). And my balance? An embarrassment. As an aging runner, I’m trying to pay more attention to those muscle groups that are easy to ignore when we run, to improve my strength, bone density, and balance. And perhaps most importantly of all: the health of our brain matters. Our brains are our three-pound control centers, and quality of life, as most of us would define it, relies heavily upon their proper functioning. Running has well-documented mental health benefits for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, or sleep disturbance, but as with these other areas of overall health – running alone is not enough.
Your 3-lb control center.

I spend most of the waking hours of my days thinking about, writing about, and talking about brain health – and how we can best support the 5.3 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. There is currently no known cure, treatment, or means of prevention, and the effects of these lengthy and fatal diseases are emotionally, physically, and financially devastating to families, communities, and our health care system. We’ve got to do everything we can as a nation, and as the individual owners and operators of our own brains. And the keys to reducing risk, according to the limited data currently available, are diet, exercise, quality sleep, social engagement, and intellectual stimulation.

For those of us who love to run, our sport allows us to check off a lot of these boxes. But it’s the last one –  intellectual stimulation – that I’ve been thinking about the most. Training and racing is a mental challenge, but I would not classify running (at least at the level at which I do it) as an intellectual pursuit. Except for when I’m doing those complex pace and mileage calculations in my head in the rough late miles of a long run (How fast was that last mile? How much longer to go?), I’m not typically doing a whole lot of cognitive work out there. It’s mostly just a lot of heavy breathing.

I love throwing random challenges into
my daily runs, in preparation for my
upcoming obstacle race. I never noticed how
many logs and rocks there were on the trails ....
I recently signed up for my first obstacle race, which will take place at the end of this month. The training I’ve done so far (minimal, I admit) has required me to incorporate learning, problem-solving, and strategy into my daily runs, looking at my familiar routes in new ways. I’ve recently realized that I’ll not only have to gain strength and flexibility in order to climb a rope or hurl my five-foot self over a six-foot wall, but I’ll also have to learn how to do these things. Turns out, these skills don’t come naturally to me. 

I didn’t sign up for this race for the mental challenge; as with most things in my life, a friend suggested it and I just immediately said “YES!” without really knowing what I had gotten myself into it. But now that I’m knee-deep in bucket-carries and burpees, I’m keenly aware of the benefits that my body, my heart, and my brain are reaping. I’m still not convinced that I’m not going to die during this race – but assuming that I don’t, I feel confident that I’ll emerge from the training a stronger, more creative, and more engaged runner and human. These races are not designed for weak, inflexible, uncoordinated 40-somethings with a paralyzing fear of heights, and I know that I am out of my element, in every sense. It’s the first thing I’ve ever signed up for that I’m pretty sure I can’t actually do. But learning from failure is the ultimate cognitive challenge, and (at least at the moment), I’m game to try. Ask me again in a couple of weeks.

I'm still too afraid of heights to actually climb
all the way over this jungle gym near my house.
But I get a little closer every day.

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