Friday, April 13, 2018

Running is my Therapy by Scott Douglas

Rating: WARTY!

This from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This author runs to help relieve symptoms of depression, and this book is intended to support and disseminate that idea. I think that's a good idea in principle, and I wanted to like and recommend this book, but the more I read of it, the less I liked it. It came across as being way too pushy and preachy, and even strident in its premise that running and only running (as opposed to other forms of aerobic exercise) can bring salvation. I know the author is very enthusiastic in his convictions, but this felt too much like evangelism, propaganda, and elitism for my taste.

The author does quote some studies to support his thesis, but when I looked up some studies myself, they didn't specify running! They specified aerobic exercise. For example, says quite clearly, "We don't know exactly which exercise is best. Almost all of the research has looked at walking, including the latest study." It adds a quote from a Dr McGinnis who says, "It's likely that other forms of aerobic exercise that get your heart pumping might yield similar benefits." In addition to quoting a study which talks only of aerobic exercise and then immediately translating 'aerobic' into 'running', the author tends most often to quote people he knows, but anecdotes are not studies, and most of the people he knows seem to be professionals - lawyers, accountants. and so on. I saw no quotes from people in less ethereal professional jobs, such as teachers, and none from your everyday people who work in anonymous office cubes and on factory floors, who may not enjoy the freedom other people have to be running. This smacked strongly of elitism to me.

The author does say that aerobic exercise works differently for different people so your results may not be as advertised. In my amateur opinion, no one should consider it to be an alternative to medical treatment without discussing it with qualified medical personnel. Maybe it can replace your meds, maybe it can reduce your dependence on them, or maybe it will not help at all; only a qualified medical practitioner can advise you on that score and on the advisability of running for any individual in view of whatever their health status may be, but as long as you're physically capable, no harm will come from talking a little exercise of one sort or another, and it can bring much good.

While I think this book has some great ideas and suggestions, the feeling I got was that this author was so enamored of running that he rather forgot that there are other ways to get exercise and 'generate those endorphins'. It seemed to me that he was taking a rather narrow view of exercise. Running does get your blood flowing, but it is also quite high impact exercise and can carry with it potential for injury and for damage to joints and bones, so any program of exercise should be undertaken with care, and unless you're reasonably physically fit to begin with, it's always wise to consult your doctor before embarking on anything that's unusually strenuous as compared with your normal habits.

At one point the author discusses evolution and how humans evolved to chase down prey, but this is a truly dim view of our history. Humans did not run five or ten miles every day. They doubtlessly walked a heck of a lot more than most of us ever do nowadays, and they ran if they had to, but they never went jogging except as a means to get from A to B. They spent their time trapping and foraging. There's was no way they could run down a four-legged animal. They could stampede an animal into a trap, or kill it by employing subterfuge, but to equate them to modern runners and claim this is what we evolved to do is patently nonsensical. We gave up our claim to being any kind of running paragons when we stood up on two feet.

On top of this, there may be issues with running - your neighborhood may not be a safe one for running in, and it's also known that running can be hard on legs, feet, and joints, yet by the time I pretty much quit this book - over half way through - I had read not one single negative assessment of running or even caution from this author. Everything was positive and hunky-dory. Anything from ankle sprain, to Achilles tendinitis, illiotibial band problems, ligament tears, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis are all on the menu for runners, but not a single one of those terms appears anywhere in this book. We hear a lot about runner's high, but not a word about runner's knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome). I have to wonder just how rose-tinted those eyeglasses are that this author evidently wears. Note that if you run with correct form and good (read expensive!) shoes, you can stave-off the worst injuries, but any runner might be subject to any one of these problems at any time.

On the topic of endorphins, there needs to be clarification. Endorphins are generated by the body as a result of physical stress and injury (in other words, as we were just discussing, running damages your body!), and while exercise does increase endorphin levels in the blood, they don't tend to pass through the blood-brain barrier, which means they don't affect your brain much. They do affect your body and this in turn can lead to a good feeling about yourself because you're essentially running your own internal morphone factory - duhh! Also, note that endorphins affect different physiologies in different ways and you may well have to run for an hour before you generate significant endorphins, so a short run isn't necessarily going to work for you. Note though that there are other chemicals that are active in the brain, and this is what might help mental faculties and relieve symptoms of depression.

These chemicals are actually a result of the body experiencing stress or pain, which might explain why walking doesn't work as well in generating the chemicals, but any aerobic exercise that gets your heart rate up ought to do the same trick - such as riding a bike - either stationary or outdoors - or dancing, or weight-lifting (kettle bells, for example), or playing a sport, or having sex - or even eating chocolate, although that's hardly an exercise! The advantage of running is that it doesn't need special equipment as long as you have suitable clothes and a decent pair of running shoes, but you can lift weights using anything around the house that's easy to pick up, (but also heavy enough!), or swing kettle bells or a safe, home-made equivalent, such as those larger paint cans with handles (pad the handles first!). You can cycle without a bike by holding your legs up and moving them in a cycling motion, and mixing that with flutter kicks, so running isn't the only option, and other options do less damage!

In terms of negative effects of running, which you really won't read about here,"> reports:

In another observational study, researchers tracked over 52,000 people for 30 years. Overall, runners had a 19 percent lower death risk than non-runners. However, the health benefits of exercise seemed to diminish among people who ran more than 20 miles a week, more than six days a week, or faster than eight miles an hour. The sweet spot appears to be five to 19 miles per week at a pace of six to seven miles per hour, spread throughout three or four sessions per week. Runners who followed these guidelines reaped the greatest health benefits: their risk of death dropped by 25 percent, according to results published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
so, as in all things, moderation! Forget about enduring the pain and being tougher - run smartly if you run, but not too smartly! Think about that! The tortoise beats the hare even though it doesn't look as pretty.

Mental acuity can improve even from simple exercise. An article in Britain's The Guardian from June 18th, 2016 reported that "German researchers showed that walking or cycling during, but not before, learning helped new foreign language vocabulary to stick" and "Just 10 minutes of playful coordination skills, like bouncing two balls at the same time, improved the attention of a large group of German teenagers." It also reported:

The runner's high - that feeling of elation that follows intense exercise - is real. Even mice get it. It may not be due to an "endorphin rush", though. Levels of the body's homemade opiate do rise in the bloodstream, but it's not clear how much endorphin actually gets into the brain. Instead, recent evidence points to a pleasurable and pain-killing firing of the endocannabinoid system: the psychoactive receptor of cannabis."
The author does mention this endocannabinoid system, and it's really quite interesting, but as always it was from the biased angle of running that he addresses things, not from 'walking or cycling'.

That same article also reported that:

Yoga teaches the deliberate command of movement and breathing, with the aim of turning on the body’s “relaxation response”. Science increasingly backs this claim. For example, a 2010 study put participants through eight weeks of daily yoga and meditation practice. In parallel with self-reported stress-reduction, brain scans showed shrinkage of part of their amygdala, a deep-brain structure strongly implicated in processing stress, fear and anxiety.
so quite clearly it's not just running which can have beneficial effects, and yoga is about as far from aerobic as you can get!

While running works - and if its your thing, then go for it, it's not the only thing that works well and I felt it misleading of this author to push running almost as though there's no real alternative. This was one of my biggest problems with this book. According to

As many as 40 to 50 percent of runners experience an injury on an annual basis, reports a 2010 paper from researchers at the Moses Cone Family Medicine Center in North Carolina in "Current Sports Medicine Reports."
That's worth thinking about if you choose to run as opposed to undertaking some other aerobic exercise.

When I quit this book (apart from skimming a few of the later pages), it was at a point where the author has a section titled Runners Really Are Tougher. His thesis here is that runners are better at managing and holding up to pain and I have to ask, why is that important? Depression carries its own kind of pain, but it's not of the physical variety this author is discussing, such as would be experienced from an injury say, so I have to ask how is proving how tough you are relevant either to the author's aim in writing this book or to anyone in general?

Yeah, if you're planning on signing up for the Navy Seals, then by all means revel in your toughness, but there's no need to "man-up" and withstand pain when we have abundant medical remedies for combatting it. Nor is there any call to subject yourself to self-induced pain from running (or any other source) if another alternative works, or if running less gets you your healthy high without running your body into the ground - which is going to leave you low. For me, this section was the last straw and it struck me as one more absurdist foray in a book that bothered me by the very fact that it was so determinedly blinkered in its approach.

I have to say a word about wasted space in this book. Once again we have a book where whitespace rules, and if only the publisher had been wise enough to use smaller margins and fewer blank pages, the book would have been significantly shorter and thereby saved the lives of a few trees if it went to a long print run. Even if you avoid the dead tree version and go for the ebook - a longer book uses more energy to travel the Internet, so you don't get to win that way. I think it's time that traditional publishing ideologies gave way to reality. Trees right now are the only things doing anything to combat greenhouse gasses, and to slaughter them so wantonly is irresponsible.

There was an odd story at the end of this book which nevertheless shows how debilitating depression can be. The author talks about reusing plastic bags for groceries, and for whatever reason, he washes them, and one time he simply stopped because he saw no point in it. I have to wonder why he uses plastic at all when sturdy reusable canvas shopping bags will work just the same and not employ oil byproducts in their manufacture. That's what I use.

But the point is that the anecdote is exemplary in showing how irrational and unpredictable depression can be, so if a regime of regular aerobic exercise works for you, then go for it! If that involves running, then this book may or may not be of help, but from my perspective, and while I wish the author all the best, I cannot in good faith recommend this.