Why running is good for you, according to doctors

Beyond fitness, running helps you set goals, practice mindfulness and create community

Runners at the starting line of the Sioux Falls Half Marathon in 2020.

When you’re outdoors for any significant length of time and it’s not 10-below zero or in the middle of the night, chances are you will eventually see someone running.

If you’re not a runner yourself, it’s OK to wonder why you see them so often. If you are a runner, there’s a collection of reasons why you’re part the group.

“All you need is a pair of shoes and some time,” said Anu Gaba, M.D., an oncologist at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, North Dakota. “Even if you only have 15 or 20 minutes, that’s a good place to start.”

Dr. Gaba is an avid runner herself, so she should know. In summarizing running’s attributes, she touches on two main points:

  1. Running is accessible.
  2. It doesn’t need to take up a lot of time.

“The most difficult step is to get your running clothes and shoes on and get out of the house,” she said. “Once you do that, that step itself will cause such a big upswing in your mood knowing you’re going to do the right thing.”

‘Prevention is better than a cure’

There are as many different routes to landing at an effective and sustainable running regimen as there are actual routes to run.

At Sanford, runner support exists as care for athletic-related injuries, runner coaching, and strength and conditioning guidance that helps keep injuries from happening in the first place. Runner support is also present via the number of marathons and other races of various distances Sanford sponsors throughout the Upper Midwest.

After a year of pandemic cancellations, the Sanford racing circuit will return to full speed with marathons and shorter races in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Aug. 29), Bismarck, North Dakota (Sept 18-19), Fargo, North Dakota (Sept. 20-25), and Bemidji, Minnesota (Oct. 8-9).

“Sanford is a health care organization, and we all know that prevention is better than a cure,” Dr. Gaba said. “If we can encourage the community around us to be involved in health activities, we’re improving the health of the cities and the towns where we live. It is such a great goal to get our communities moving.”

Listen now: What are the benefits of running? Sanford experts discuss on the Health and Wellness podcast

One doesn’t decide on a Friday to run a marathon on Saturday. It’s a gradual process and it can vary greatly depending on age and level of fitness prior to targeting a race. Staying healthy enough to keep compiling the miles can also be a challenge.

That’s where people like Briana Isakson can come in and provide guidance, care and encouragement.

Isakson is a physical therapist at Sanford Outpatient Rehabilitation in Bemidji and is a former college gymnast at the University of Minnesota who can help those who may be dealing with injuries or preparing to embark on a training routine that includes plenty of running.

The key, especially as it applies to recovery from injuries, is to use a gradual approach.

“If you’re coming back from an injury, it’s best to focus more on time on your feet than mileage,” Isakson said. “Doing a walk-jog allows you to build up more tolerance because you’re not just running the whole time. I’ll start my patients with three minutes of walking and one minute of jogging. That way you can go for 25 or 30 minutes where maybe you couldn’t sustain that if you were just jogging.”

Running races to set goals

Transforming running into a fitness regimen starts with that first step.

For Bess Wyszynski, the first step came early. This 45-year-old solutions architect for Chenega Corporation was a good runner in high school and also ran in college at the University of South Dakota. She completed her first marathon in 2005 four months after giving birth to her son.

The marathon was a “bucket list” item for this Colman, a South Dakota resident. Once crossed off, that may have been where it was going to end until her “big little brother” told her he wanted to run a marathon. They trained together and she was hooked. Again.

In time she was training at a level that permitted her to qualify for the Boston Marathon. She finally got to run it in 2013. Though that year the race was marred by a bombing, her experience got her locked in on marathons and she’s never let them go.

“At that point I had it in my head that if I was going to continue to run them, I was going to run every one in a different state,” Wyszynski said. “So after that, I’d randomly pick them from other states.”

Next up is a race in Rhode Island, she said. A broken ankle in January — she has plates and screws in her ankle now — has not hampered her training enough to take her off schedule. She has 24 states to go to complete all 50.

“I have to get up early in the morning to get my running in regularly,” Wyszynski said. “And part of that is going to bed at a decent time so I can get up. That’s how I have to do it. If I don’t get my running in first thing, a lot of days it doesn’t get done. It helps having a spouse who likes to get up and go work out in the morning as well.”

She’ll run anywhere from three to six miles on a given morning three or four times a week. Like most runners, Wyszynski has discovered it’s best to mix other fitness elements in with the miles on the road.

She also does a lot of warming up. It’s an overlooked part of a healthy running routine for some, but she has learned her lesson.

“It’s more than just stretching,” Wyszynski said. “You have to do range-of-motion movements and work on your balance and work on your core. If you’re like me and you sit at a job all day you might have had some back issues in the past. I’ve not had those problems for five or six years now after I started doing a lot more range-of-motion exercises. I’m religious about doing it now every day.”

Running as spiritual time

“Fitness week” in gym class sent Tanya Engesether into a panic when she was a youngster. It wasn’t until she was about 30 years old that this director of therapy and rehabilitation at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center decided it was time to get over her anxiety.

“I’d hear people say, ‘Oh, I went out for a run last night,’” Engesether said. “And that was that. I wanted to be able to say, ‘I went out for a three-mile run last night.’ That’s how it started.”

Engesether, a cancer survivor, began with walk-run combos until she got to the point where she could run the entire three-mile loop around the hospital without stopping.

Since then she’s never really stopped. Running takes her places, she said. That applies to actual places but also to her thoughts.

“What I’ve found is that running is my spiritual time,” Engesether said. “When you strip it down, running is a fatigue thing. You’re tired. You don’t know if you can make it. It’s at that point I find the most gratitude for what’s around me. I feel closest to God when I’m running in his creation because all the real-world stresses are stripped away.”

Engesether will be out on the trail when praise and worship music will come on through her headphones. She thinks more clearly and calmly, then, she said. She takes with her the physical benefits of being a runner, but that’s only the beginning.

“I become grateful for the simple things that we all usually take for granted when we’re on the hamster wheel of everyday life,” she said. “I’m grateful for a body that allows me to put one foot in front of the other when I go on this run. I’m grateful for a 70-degree day in sunshine.”

Like Wyszynski, Engesether is most consistent with her running when she’s getting up in the morning to do it. She has everything she needs ready to go the night before to make the transition from bed to workout smoother. She’s also OK with getting in some miles over her lunch break. On the weekends she’ll add mileage if she’s getting ready for a race.

At no point does she get preoccupied with the time it takes her to finish.

“I really try to keep it pretty basic because that’s what works for me,” Engesether said. “I don’t get record-breaking times but I’ve really never been injured so I’m OK with that.”

Running with a community

The good feelings Engesether experiences is a real thing for a lot of runners. So is good company. Wyszynski and Engesether have made a lot of friends since making running part of their lives.

“It’s kind of organic — you make connections with other people who run,” Engesether said. “You end up talking about how you approach training for marathons or whatever you’re going to run. It can be a fuel that keeps you going.”

On weekends, Wyszynski goes for longer runs with friends, many of whom are part of a local running club.

“That makes it easier and a lot more fun,” she said. “We’ve lived in South Dakota for about 15 years and the friends I’ve met from Sioux Falls Women Run has been an improvement in my life.”

Motivations vary, as do the number of miles. But the finish line is always about improving lives, regardless of the distance. Dr. Gaba shared what inspires her.

“When you enter a race, it’s inspiring because you’ll see many people who are taller than you, shorter than you, or heavier or lighter than you,” she said. “You might see people who are disabled and people who are professional athletes – everybody is taking part. Nobody is going to ridicule you for running slow or not being a professional athlete. You’ll find so many people cheering you on.”

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Posted In Bemidji, Bismarck, Fargo, Healthy Living, Orthopedics, Running, Sioux Falls, Sports Medicine

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