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Running To Build Mental & Physical Strength During “Shelter In Place”

We’re currently moving “back to basics” in our daily lives. Members of now-closed gyms need not look any further than their surrounding communities to keep active.

Kevin Cergol
Mar 21 · 6 min read
Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic is our new temporary normal — and God, I hope the “temporary” portion is accurate. The pain of living in a world with, in my lifetime anyway, an unprecedented amount of suffering across the globe is difficult to bear. I am grateful that thus far COVID-19 has evaded my loved ones and that I am fortunate enough to have a level of relative comfort with a roof over my head and my university allowing for remote learning. While the news of “shelter in place” orders paired with images of barren city streets are admittedly terrifying, they also encourage pride and optimism stemming from the increasing levels of compliance around the globe. It is of course yet to be seen, but the worldwide actions taken in the last week lend credibility to hopes that the international wish of a flattened curve will come to fruition.

Just how temporary our life of curbside pickups and distant waves will be is an unknown causing substantial anxiety for the general public. Human beings are incredibly adaptable creatures, however, and it is my hope that many will develop their own ways of dealing with this state of reality. I have had quite a few people ask me what I am doing to cope. Well, the honest answer is, “I still haven’t totally figured that out yet.” So far, I’ve found solace in board games and laughter with my wonderful girlfriend/“quaran-queen,” e-hangouts with family and friends, great coffee, the excitement I feel every day surrounding the startup I’m working on, and, relatedly, exercise.

Once a residual hobby from high school sports, exercise has evolved into an important stress-reliever since my first day of law school. Cliché, I know, but in the last three years exercise has yielded me a gym buddy turned close friend, a rejuvenated love of sport through the most active pickup basketball group I’ve ever seen (shout out to “Tre’s Troubadours” at Duke Law), and a closer relationship with my mom, whom I swap running stories with weekly. So, moving to a world of where the weights accumulate dust, the chorus of squeaky tennis shoes across basketball courts has fallen silent, and fellow runners cautiously dart to the other side of the road upon passing has been a fairly difficult one.

Figuring out what my exercise schedule is going to look like has taken up a considerable amount of brain-space during the latter hours of my now online, compassionately pass-fail lectures. While I want to focus on cardiovascular training in this post, I’ve been amazed by just how much strength work you can do with some resistance bands, a bag of books, and a pull-up bar. There’s a wealth of information on at-home workouts on fitness blogs, and many virtual workout class companies (including Daily Burn, which I’ve really enjoyed) are offering extended trials to their services. Anyway, on to running!

Growing up I loathed running. Most American (non-track or cross-country) athletes can commiserate over the experience of having a coach tell you to “get on the line” for sprints or laps after screwing up a sufficient number of times in practice. Running as punishment is a staple across American sports. While the efficacy of this is questionable, it is nonetheless an association many of us washed up athletes have with the sport. I shed this association about two years ago after watching my mom’s mental health thrive as she began implementing running into her life. Here’s why, especially now, giving running another shot is worthwhile:

1. Running tends to take place outside.

Regardless of your living situation during the crisis, you’re likely spending more time inside than ever. Running will not just get you out the door for some fresh air, but it will allow you to cover a lot of ground to take in the familiar sights of your community. Getting outside, especially when removing yourself from urban settings, has been shown to improve mental health by slowing continuous negative thought loops. Given the recent events, this is likely something we’ve all been susceptible to of late.

2. Running positively impacts mental health.

Aside from running’s physical benefits that include improved cardiovascular strength, metabolism stimulation, and increases in bone mass, lacing up the running shoes can positively impact your mental health too. You often hear of the “runner’s high,” a hormonal rush of positivity felt by runners during a run, in discussions on the merits of running. While this alone is great, the positive mental health impacts of running extend long beyond the period where you’re actually exercising. A running routine has been linked to decreasing the likelihood of depression and anxiety. I’m sure that I’m not the only one feeling increased anxiety in this time of uncertainty, and running has helped ease this feeling. There are numerous other benefits to running such as self-esteem boosts, increases in energy, and better sleep. Finally, on a practical note, a goal of tackling a run of a few miles gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning at a time when our calendars have been wiped clean.

3. Anthony Fauci is doing it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is an immunologist serving on the United States’ COVID-19 task force who you’ve almost certainly seen speaking in the past week. Currently, his day-to-day looks like this: nineteen hours of pandemic-fighting work and a three and a half mile run. He also happens to be seventy-nine years old. Yes, you read all of that correctly. In this 2016 interview below, he mentions running “at least five to six times a week” for “about an hour.”

It speaks volumes that this global health expert has preserved his running routine for presumably the only hour of free time he has each day.

4. It is the definition of a social distancing activity.

Over the last few days, we’ve all seen people taking different measures to retain some sense of normalcy in their lives: board games over Zoom and social distancing meetups (below) have been two favorites that I’ve seen.

Running, as long as you’re not doing it with a group, by definition keeps you from congregating around others for any appreciable amount of time. It is not by accident that many United States “shelter in place” orders have explicitly carved out exceptions for exercise. Albert Ko, Yale epidemiologist, recently stated that “if you’re going out and you’re hiking or biking or running and you’re not within, say, six feet or 10 feet of another person, I would consider that a healthy, safe practice.” For those that love running groups, there is a twinge of disappointment within this statement: it’s time to take a temporary hiatus from those camaraderie-building team runs. Try to use it as an opportunity to enjoy the rare period of uninterrupted thought that us solo runners seek out!

COVID-19 has brought many of us into a period where we are more technology supported than ever in some facets of our lives. On the education front, for example, some of my classmates have dubbed our current medium of learning the “Zoom University School of Law.” However, other areas are moving “back to basics”: we’re more likely to call up an old friend for a chat in the middle of the afternoon, those of us cautiously separated from our families feel a yearning to be with them like never before, and we’re realizing that there happens to be a pretty great gym in our “backyard” to relieve some of the world’s current pressures.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Kevin Cergol

Written by

I’m the co-founder of Embarc, an app that generates custom running routes in your area based on your preferences (www.embarcfitness.com). Law student @ Duke.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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