Run For Your Life!

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. 

― Haruki Murakami

No doubt many of you saw the headlines last week claiming that running five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely. Like me, I’m sure you were deeply excited by this. The articles have been more fascinating than the actual supposed breakthrough information, frankly. Fascinating as exercises in the illogical. If I still taught logic classes, I would absolutely choose these to help me illustrate how not to think:

For decades, researchers there have been collecting information about the health of tens of thousands of men and women visiting the clinic for a check-up. These adults, after completing extensive medical and fitness examinations, have filled out questionnaires about their exercise habits, including whether, how often and how speedily they ran.

From this database, the researchers chose the records of 55,137 healthy men and women ages 18 to 100 who had visited the clinic at least 15 years before the start of the study. Of this group, 24 percent identified themselves as runners, although their typical mileage and pace varied widely.

I was going to say that, with this quote, we stumble and flail onto our faces over the first problem in the article. But of course that’s not actually the first problem. The article begins by telling us that doctors have basically been making up numbers.

Run for X minutes a day!

Or maybe walk really fast for twice that long!

There has been, according to the author, almost no science to back up these numbers. But mark: having no proof is no reason we shouldn’t push it on people! Oh yes.

Just Do It.

But I’m going to let that go for now and concentrate on this interesting method of “research.” I know that when pharmaceutical companies want, for example, to test the safety of a new drug that will make your fingernails grow in a more pleasingly rounded shape(adversesideeffectsassociatedwiththeuseofPerUngeumincludebutarenotlimitedtonasopharyngitis,urinarytractinfection,naseau,headaches,diarrhea,myocardialinfarctionandinrarecasesdeath), they are always permitted to choose the people they want to test and the tests they want to accept.

The researchers then checked death records for these adults. In the intervening 15 or so years, almost 3,500 had died, many from heart disease.

But the runners were much less susceptible than the nonrunners. The runners’ risk of dying from any cause was 30 percent lower than that for the nonrunners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45 percent lower than for nonrunners..Remarkably, these benefits were about the same no matter how much or little people ran. Those who hit the paths for 150 minutes or more a week, or who were particularly speedy, clipping off six-minute miles or better, lived longer than those who didn’t run. But they didn’t live significantly longer those who ran the least, including people running as little as five or 10 minutes a day at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile or slower.

And here we get the heart of the matter. What’s wrong with these statements, you ask me? Let me give you one more and see if you can figure it out:

The study did not directly examine how and why running affected the risk of premature death, he said, or whether running was the only exercise that provided such benefits.

So, actually, this wasn’t a “study.” It was just an observation. Kind of like this one:

In World War II, 3,540 men from Florida were killed. 15,764 men from Texas died. Clearly, therefore, I can extrapolate that during World War II, being from Texas increased your risk of premature death by 345%.

Now you say that’s baloney, but wait a minute! Let me adjust my data! That will fix everything. That will make you feel better. I’ll adjust it to compensate for military enrollment numbers! 248,000 of America’s WWII military were from Florida. 750,000 Texans joined the fight in some way or other. So 1.43% of Floridian and 2.1% of Texan military personnel died, meaning that our neatly adjusted numbers tell us that being Texan caused your risk of premature death to go up by only 47%.

Of course that’s all hogwash. Being Texan had nothing to do with it, although I’m sure any readers from Texas will start sending me hate mail about that famous Texan fighting spirit, which doubtless led Texans to rush to the front of battles and volunteer for harder missions. Then I’ll print a retraction, and then the Floridians will send their hate mail protesting that they are just as brave as any Texan, and we’ll have to settle it all with pistols at ten paces like our beloved president Alexander Hamilton; only he grew up in the Caribbean so let’s not open that can of worms.

The point is, if I can remember it, that we have no idea whether running was cause, effect, or simply a meaningless variable with all this data.

Let me tell you about what happened to me, and we’ll see how that fits with all our data.

While I was eating plain Cheerios with skim milk, whole grain pasta, low-fat everything, Tub ‘O Heart Health Butterish-Like Spread, and gallons of fruit and vegetables, I never wanted to run. I ran only for emergencies. By sheer force of will I engaged in other forms of exercise–more or less running-like in intensity, but less hard on the knees.

Then one day, I threw all that out and started eating butter, steaks, yogurt, lamb, and then some more butter. Five minutes later, give or take a week, I felt like a completely different person. I felt like running all the time. I had to stop myself from running because I was too heavy to run safely. And, coincidentally, my heart–by all the numbers these reporters ever care about–suddenly got into excellent shape. It took about two months, during neither of which did I ever run. Mostly I sat around.

I’m daydreaming right now about how I might go out and run around for a few minutes later on; daydreaming the same way I used to daydream all morning long about exactly when I could have my homemade whole grain bread sandwich with the 1/3 a skinless chicken breast, lettuce, tomato, and mustard. And an apple.

When people hear this today they look at me and say–because they aren’t listening people–Oh yeah, when you lose lots of weight you feel lots better, and look how good running is for you! Then they wander off, confirmed in their misconceptions.

I didn’t run to feel better. I ran because I felt better. I didn’t feel better because I lost weight. I lost weight because I felt better. And if that is me, couldn’t that be other people, too?

Isn’t it possible that it’s because the people in this study already felt good and are healthy that they felt like running–even if it was only for five minutes or so? That’s about all I run, actually. It’s more like a sprint. I’m not in it for the distance. I don’t pound along, huffing. Go big or go home, I say, so anytime I run it is flat-out, full-force, like-zombies-are-chasing-me, make-people-around-me-a-little-nervous (“what’s she running from,” they think for a second) type of sprinting. Unless I run with other people, in which case I’m invariably holding back.

That’s because by “other people” I mean little kids.

So why is everyone obsessed with running as the Holy Grail of exercise and health? I think there are three forces at play here. I shall elucidate them for you. Hang on. Or, go get a snack. It’s up to you, really.

1. Confounding cause and effect in all cases. I’m not saying that no one ever felt better because they ran. I’m saying that it’s manifestly not true that everyone feels good and gets healthy because they run. Obviously some people–like me–run because we feel good and are in good health; not to get into good health. Some people, though, are so convinced that A always causes B that they can’t see any possibility that B could be causing A. This would also cover people who really don’t feel like running, but who force themselves to do it because they believe it is good for them.

2. Money. You can’t sell these for $235 unless people think running is the most important thing they can do for their health aside from having a child to care for them in their old age:

Never feel the ground!
These ridiculous things are made of plastic, and in China. For $235, I would expect blind Italian nuns to be hand-stitching each one out of calfskin


3. Pettiness. The world has always had people in it who just need to prove they are superior to others. Just because today’s proud aren’t flagellating themselves up the steps of some basilica doesn’t mean the urge to endure suffering to prove I’m Holier Than Thou Art isn’t alive and well. It can be satisfying to run around and exhaust yourself, then sit in the smoothie cafe and make fun of the fat people. And of course by saying this I don’t mean that everyone who runs is doing such things. Some of my best brothers are runners. But there are people like this. If you doubt me, just google “quotes about running” and you’ll get self-congratulatory gems like these:

When I was little and running on the race track at school, I always stopped and waited for all the other kids so we could run together even though I knew (and everybody else knew) that I could run much faster than all of them! I pretended to read slowly so I could “wait” for everyone else who couldn’t read as fast as I could! When my friends were short I pretended that I was short too and if my friend was sad I pretended to be unhappy. I could go on and on about all the ways I have limited myself, my whole life, by “waiting” for people.

Running isn’t a sport for pretty boys…It’s about the sweat in your hair and the blisters on your feet. Its the frozen spit on your chin and the nausea in your gut. It’s about throbbing calves and cramps at midnight that are strong enough to wake the dead. It’s about getting out the door and running when the rest of the world is only dreaming about having the passion that you need to live each and every day with.

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle–behold, the Running Man.

I particularly like that last one. Because all the traditional peoples we can find today–you know, the ones no one’s allowed to take a Coke to lest they become corrupted by the influence of other cultures? None of those people run. They spend most of their lives figuring out how not to run unless they must, because its a big waste of energy.

If you enjoy running, run. If you find personal satisfaction in being able to run long distances, great. If you’re training for some race, by all means go for it. Just don’t delude yourself that running is making you some kind of un-killable super-person. What isn’t all over the news all the time is how 30-65% of runners are injured once a year. And for every study like the one we just looked at, there’s an opposing one showing that runners are more likely than non-runners to develop heart disease, cancer (and here), liver problems and damage their musclesvascular system, brain, and spine*. That doesn’t prove running will give you cancer. It only goes to show that not running is just as likely to be healthy. Something’s going to kill you–and running will not save you from it.

Unless it’s zombies.

*See also: “Is Exercise-Induced Myocardial Injury Self-Abating?” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33

“Ultra-Endurance Exercise and Oxidative Damage: Implications for Cardiovascular Health,” Sports Medicine 36

“Exercise and Cardiovascular Disease: A New Perspective.” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 18

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