In the past, hungry humans had to race after their prey for food. The fun runner Alex Raack is grateful for the civilizational progress his species has made in the meantime. That said, he prefers to go running to clear his head – for texts like this.
While this text is being written from a comfortable and basically motionless sedentary position, the fact is: we humans were born to walk. There are certainly good reasons why evolution once plucked us out of the water, installed us in trees and finally settled us on terra firma. We come equipped with a compact torso, two long arms and even longer legs. Moreover, our organs are positioned so favorably that, at least in theory, we could still run for miles today to pursue a mammoth until it runs out of breath or plummets off a cliff. Or, to put it in the words of biologists Daniel Lieberman and Dennis Bramble: "Fossil evidence suggests that endurance running is a derived ability of the species Homo, one that originated two million years ago and possibly contributed to the evolution of the human body."
Born to run is the title of an article published by scientists in the journal Nature, and sometimes we would do well to remember what the human body was originally designed for: running up hills and down dales – and not cowering at a desk or lying lethargically on a couch. For me personally, the following insight is often enough to take me across the threshold: the ten thousand (and more) additional steps ensue automatically once we lace our shoes, select a playlist and – in my case – put the dog on its leash. I run regularly and always enjoy it. There are no excessively long distances involved and only rarely do I have a starting number on my back and am part of a pack of fellow hobby runners. That said, I am usually in the company of my four-legged friend who, I have to concede, has been favored over humankind by evolution when it comes to speed and endurance. In other words, he can run faster and further than I can.
There are lots of good reasons for running. Historically speaking, because it enabled our ancestors to chase down their quarry and serve it up for meals. I am more than grateful that a brisk walk to the supermarket suffices today. Another reason, of course, is physical well-being: running is healthy, it keeps your weight down, it even gives you cool calves. Above all, however, and this is what fascinates me personally, running is extremely good for a completely different region of the body. The sports psychologist Professor Oliver Stoll, himself a passionate long-distance runner, believes: "At a certain point, which depends partly on a person's age and physical condition, the brain has to economize with the oxygen at its disposal, because most of our energy is deployed in our muscles. And that means that certain areas of the brain remain active while others are shut down."
The remarkable thing here is as follows: our body is so ingeniously designed that our key brain functions continue to run at maximum speed (motor skills, vision, hearing), while other less important functions are "dimmed down" like a living-room lamp. For example, the prefrontal cortex – where we sort and process information and assess potential solutions to our day-to-day problems large and small – only ticks over to low gear if you jog for an extended period. With problems I mean stuff like bad news, negative feedback on your last ATLAS column, personal relationship problems, bills clamoring to be paid – things that otherwise drive you crazy.
I must admit that there aren't only bats in my belfry. The moment I get up, my brain kicks into top gear, which is why I'm grateful for any way of giving it a time-out. By the way, the popularity of alcohol is partly due to the soporific effect it has on our prefrontal cortex. I have nothing against a soothing glass of wine after work, but 10 long kilometers through the woods are much healthier than five short shots in a bar. Alcohol and running have one more thing in common: in excess, they cause damage to the body and mind and can even result in addiction. The psychiatrist Dr. Tobias Freyer, medical director at the Wiesbaden Schlangenbad Park Clinic, warns: "Most amateur athletes get no professional support during training." In some cases, enthusiasts overestimating their powers might find themselves succumbing to depression or becoming addicted to performance-enhancing drugs.
Thankfully, overambition is not one of my risk factors. For me, it's just about shifting my butt after writing pieces like this, churning through the meters with my pet Labrador at my side – until my calves start to hurt, the sweat runs down my face and the mind games are starved of fuel for a while. Another positive effect I often observe in myself has also been scientifically proven: rhythmic sequences of movement over an extended period of time stimulate the processes in the human brain. So: three guesses where I got the idea for this article!
Alex Raack is a freelance journalist.