Monday, November 2, 2009

The science behind RLG

We already know from our own personal experience that "running like a girl," in whatever our sport is, makes us feel better--about ourselves and our lives. Still, it's nice that science is catching up to our anecdotal observation. I just finished reading Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, which shows how exercise actually builds and conditions our brains so that we learn better, are happier, healthier, and can age more gracefully. His goal (and one of mine with RLG) is to re-connect the mind and body. We know, because we've literally felt it at times, how our minds can defeat or re-energize our body and vice versa, how our body can dissipate or re-invigorate our mind. The mind and body are not separate entities, though many in Western culture would like to think so.

In his book, Ratey covers a range of topics, showing in each case how exercise can improve cognitive abilities and mental health issues, in other words how it can improve learning and ameliorate conditions as diverse as depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, menopause, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and, yes, aging in general. He shows how exercise literally helps the brain grow (how great is that?--and here's the cool word to go with it: neurogenesis).

As he writes, "The neurons in the brain connect to one another through 'leaves' on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level." And later he writes this of the spark that exercise ignites in us, "It lights a fire on every level of your brain, from stoking up the neurons' metabolic furnaces to forging the very structures that transmit information from one synapse to the next."

Wow. That deserves a moment's pause to consider the implications.

Ratey, of course, goes into much more detail about the biological and chemical effects of exercise, which I won't get into here. I need to run a bit more before my brain grows enough new "leaves" to retain all the acronyms (vascular endothelial growth factor = VEGF, for example; though it inspired me to start using my own Run Like a Girl= RLG acronym more), suffice to say that the sports we pursue are good for us in more ways than we knew, though likely we knew instinctively that this was so.

When we RLG, we're simultaneously tapping into and replenishing our reserves of strength, courage, flexibility and, yes, joy; not just physical, but mental and emotional. We've always felt it. Not that we need science to validate how we feel, but it's nice. I, for one, find it grounding that science is finally catching up. I also think it opens a world full of possibilities--imagine if people were prescribed a little bit of exercise, instead of a pill that half-cures and comes with a host of side-effects? It's already happening. It's already working, and in some cases better than the pill ever could (not that meds don't have an important function). When we begin to see the power of our own ability to change, what other things will we turn to next? We are not stuck (wherever we think we're stuck). We never have been. We just need to start moving.