A recent study published in The BMJ reports that deaths related to cirrhosis increased 65% from 1999-2016. Cirrhosis, irreversible scarring of the liver, has many causes, including alcohol consumption, obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and hepatitis. Cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer and liver failure, both of which can be fatal.
It caused me to think back on what Dr. Sanjay Gupta said on Anderson Cooper’s Special Town Hall: Finding Hope, Battling America’s Suicide Crisis. Gupta said that life expectancy as a whole in the United States had plateaued and dropped over the last couple of years. The most common causes of premature death for the middle-aged white working class population were liver cirrhosis, typically due to alcoholism, opioid overdose and suicide – the “deaths of despair.”
I think most people have felt despair at one time or another, but how we deal with it can make or break us. I used to deal with stress by overeating. Some people turn to alcohol. But those “fixes” are temporary and eventually leave a person feeling worse than they did to begin with. When I began my weight loss journey in early 2014, I discovered vigorous exercise to be a powerful antidepressant. The higher the intensity, the more feel-good staying power. Spin classes were especially effective.
Despite being a self-avowed “non-runner,” I decided to give running a try with the goal of completing a half marathon in 2015. For a long time I listened to music while I ran, creating playlists that motivated me to get out there and get it done. One the occasions when my phone wasn’t charged, my runs were pure drudgery. Then a month or so ago I had a late-night run in with a creep outside of my favorite grocery store which caught me totally off guard. As a result, I decided to give up listening to music on my runs so that I could be more aware of my surroundings. I became almost hyper-aware of the sounds around me – the chipmunk in the leaves, the birds in the trees, the rhythm of my footsteps. To my surprise, what I once considered drudgery became my calm. I was able to “get out of my head” and just be. It’s a glorious feeling.
I’m not suggesting that running, or any kind of exercise, alone is the cure for all that ills us; but it can play an important role in one’s overall plan to getting and staying well, both physically and mentally.
For more about the mental health benefits of running, I recommend Scott Douglas’ new book, Running is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Right Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier (The Experiment, 2018).