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Together We Move Podcast: Can Your Running Community Help You Live Longer?

ASHLEY ARNOLD (HOST): Alright, I am logging on. Kate, can you hear me?

KATE SCHWARTZ (HOST): No, you keep freezing.

ARNOLD: How about now?

SCHWARTZ: Yes, now I can hear you now!

ARNOLD: Awesome. OK. Well. Also, we’re recording from our closets.

SCHWARTZ: It’s kind of fun. I feel like I’m at summer camp or something.

ARNOLD: This is our recording studio. I’m Ashley Arnold.

SCHWARTZ: And I'm Kate Schwartz.

ARNOLD: This is Together We Move. A monthly podcast about important issues, all told through the lens of, you guessed it, running.

Today we’re talking about running and community in a time when isolation and division are woven into our daily lives. And it turns out that social connection has way more impact on our physical and mental health than people give it credit for. When it comes to building community and living healthy lives, how much of an impact can running have? Could running change everything?

Today we bring you a show in three parts:

For Part One, we talk to a runner who is looking for ways to expand the running community to make it more inclusive for everyone.

For Part Two we talk to a Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience about how social relationships impact our health.

And in Part Three, we learn about an often excluded group of people who created their own endurance team that now feels like family.

So, we’re going to start with an interview you had Kate, right?

Yes. I talked with Mike Moreau, who works for Fleet Feet Chicago.

Mike Moreau runs in a race

MIKE MOREAU: My name is Mike Moreau. I work for Fleet Feet here in Chicago. Mostly at the Lakeview and Old Town stores. I also coach high school cross country and track and freshman boys basketball at North Shore Country Day.

SCHWARTZ: I came across Mike as I was reading a Runner’s World article called 11 Black, Indiginous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Speak out about Running and Race. In his photo he was wearing a Fleet Feet jersey, and we were looking for more people to have these conversations with, so I thought, ooh, a Fleet Feet guy! We have to talk to him! And, so, as I started digging I discovered he had recently started a podcast where he interviews other BIPOC runners to learn about them and tell their stories. And by the way, BIPOC is a term that we use a few times during this podcast. And BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. It’s a term you’re going to hear a lot.

ARNOLD: And we’ll also link to his podcast in our show notes.

MOREAU: It’s been really fun so far. Honestly, just because I'm learning more about people and BIPOC runners in general. I’m also pretty guilty of in general following the white runners and not really following minority runners in the sport or minority casual runners because I didn’t know many were out there. Even though I don’t know, necessarily, a lot of these people we have some shared experiences. I think running in general can bring people together, because you share similar experiences regardless of the pace you run.

SCHWARTZ: We need diverse groups of people getting together so that people from all walks of life feel welcome. Feel included.

ARNOLD: And as a whole, then we all feel more connected, less lonely, more empathetic and compassionate?

SCHWARTZ: Exactly. But, like just diversifying something isn’t going to solve all of the problems. For example, Mike even commented that he’s been guilty of saying that running is this great sport because all you need is a pair of shoes, but that is really over simplifying it.

MOREAU: We need to show everyone out there and make people feel more welcome. And I think the sport can be better because of it.

ARNOLD: So, how does location and access come into play here?

SCHWARTZ: That’s a great question, and one that Mike actually explored a lot in his most recent podcast. And we talked about it.

MOREAU: On the last episode I did, with Carolyn Su, the creator of Diverse We Run, she talked about on her Diverse We Run panel, the trail runner, I can’t remember her name right now, tried to get her friends, her Black friends to run on the trails with her. And she didn’t even think about how nervous that would make them feel, to be in a place they’re not familiar with. There’s a lot we can work on, just by, like you said wanting to make sure people feel like they’re welcomed. And, the more we can do that and feel like people have a safe space, the more that people will become a part of things.

Accessibility can be an issue. Just getting from one place to another. Getting involved with BIPOC runners at younger ages to let them know, hey, this is something you can do. In general for a little bit of exercise and maybe it’s something they stick with for a lifetime. And then again, just other runners in general making an effort to run in different neighborhoods and see different parts of their cities and make people not feel like outcasts. I think that’s a big issue.

SCHWARTZ: And something else he said was really interesting. He talked about this idea that BIPOC runners out running in other communities where White people may not be used to seeing someone of color, might, in a sense, help them get accustomed to seeing someone that doesn't look like them, and that that would maybe alleviate racism somewhat? Create more of what should be the reality that running is, truly, for everyone.

MOREAU: She’s not saying that will be the answer, but she hopes that people seeing more BIPOC runners being a part of the community will help not make it strange when they see a BIPOC runner running in their neighborhood that they may not see before and think they’re going for a run instead of that strange person in their neighborhood that makes them feel unsafe.

ARNOLD: This is a really interesting point that he’s bringing up here. Because in Part Two, when we talked to the psychologist we talked about these casual interactions with people and what happens with microaggressions and just how those casual interactions can really lead to loneliness.

SCHWARTZ: You know, in my conversations with Mike, that was a big topic. And I think that loneliness absolutely comes into play here.

So, that made me start thinking about this episode of Mike’s podcast with a runner named Carolyn Su. Su talks about feeling this pressure to convince people that racism and discrimination is real, as though they don’t believe it. And so, the two of them were both featured in the Runner’s World article that I mentioned where I saw Mike in the first place. It’s on that topic, race and discrimination in the running world. The article discussed the experiences that the runners have had. At the bottom of the article there were a lot of comments. There were positive comments but there were also a lot of negative comments. And some of them were things like, “As a white man I feel discriminated against and picked on by this article.” Like, it was this very grave misrepresentation of the point the article was trying to make. It just was trying to foster a sense of inclusiveness by talking openly about these issues.

ARNOLD: Oh, so this guy or this guy, or the people making the comments really twisted it to make it about themselves?

SCHWARTZ: Exactly. And here’s what Mike said:

MOREAU: Honestly, it’s very frustrating. It’s the majority being uncomfortable. When people are uncomfortable in general they don’t really like it. That guy is probably so used to things being the same way. So that when someone brings something different to the table, he didn’t like it. No one was picking on him. We were sharing our own stories. He inserted himself into the conversation when no one really asked him to. No one was saying, “hey you random commenter, this is your fault.” We just wanted to share our stories and have an impact on the running world in whatever way we could.

And you know, getting back to the things running has taught me, it’s that being uncomfortable is OK and it’s where you see the most growth. And I think this quarantine has been tough on people. A lot of it has been uncomfortable and we have to have conversations that a lot of people don’t want to have. But a lot of minorities have on, honestly, on a daily basis. And they share those experiences constantly. When people like him comment it’s just him being uncomfortable and if he’s willing to learn and grow from it, then good, but if he’s not going to want to learn then he’s part of the problem.

PART TWO

JULIANNE HOLT-LUNSTAD: OK, my name is Julianne Holt-Lunstad. I am a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. My work, my research focuses on relationships, so, social relationships and their impact on our health. And in particular, physical health. This work has, of course, led me to looking at social isolation and loneliness but conversely also looks at the protective effects of being socially connected as well.

ARNOLD: So, essentially, when Julianne started her research, like no one was doing much with loneliness. There were only five studies published in 1988. So, as new research started to bubble up to the surface, she began gathering evidence from all over the world to really connect the dots. She began looking at all of the different ways that people are connected. And she found that people with a high level of social connection had a 50% increased rate of survival. But people didn’t really believe her right away.

SCHWARTZ: I can see why. Really? 50 percent? That seems incredibly high.

ARNOLD: Yeah it sounds like so much! But in order to prove it, she took the study a step further.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: So really what I did was, as you know, the impact of this on our health, our physical health, and even how long we live, is not very well-recognized by the general public or even the medical community. But there are decades of epidemiological research. Where large scale studies have followed people, in some cases thousands of people, over years. And often decades, to see to what extent are people socially connected or conversely, isolated or lonely, and does this predict how long people live?

Because this was so unrecognized, we benchmarked it relative to other factors that people take very seriously. So, things like smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, physical inactivity. What we found was that this was comparable and in many cases exceeded the magnitude of risk associated with these other factors.

So, then I did another one specifically looking at isolation and loneliness. This time we had data from over 3.4 million people worldwide. Again, we found a significant effect. So, isolation, loneliness and living alone were each independent risk factors for premature mortality.

SCHWARTZ: So, I wonder how the types of relationships you have make a difference? Honestly, most of the strong relationships I’ve built as an adult have been through running.

ARNOLD: Yeah, same. I totally went there in my mind as soon as she mentioned relationships, too. And it’s so much more complex than I even originally imagined. Here’s what Julianne said:

HOLT-LUNSTAD: Of course, relationships are complex. Understandably, researchers have studied this in a variety of ways. One of the things we did in the big meta analysis was tried to organize to see whether some were more predictive of risk than others. So generally, we were able to categorize these in three different ways.

One was when they look at the structure of our relationships or network. So, this would get at the size of your network, or how many people you have contact with or how frequently you have contact with them. Whether or not you live alone. So, really kind of numbers-based. So, they really just get at the presence or absence of others in your life, right? And they may not get at how meaningful those relationships are or whatnot.

And, so, the next one gets at the functions our relationships serve. And some look at the extent to which there’s social support whether it’s perceived or received. The extent to which you have someone you can turn to for a favor, for understanding. For advice. So, these functions that our relationships serve.

ARNOLD: We really lean on one another for advice, for grounding, for reality checks, for just acceptance. I feel like that is what we do when we’re out running together. And it’s so interesting to me because I think about how oftentimes, without running, many of us may not have crossed paths. And now we’re really close friends.

SCHWARTZ: Right, and with running friends, there’s a tendency to really connect. We’re not distracted by technology or anything else when we’re running. And honestly, that’s kind of unique these days. Plus, when we run with others, we’re conquering a challenge together. I mean, do you think those feelings help us connect on a deeper level?

ARNOLD: Yeah, I absolutely do, and I think you really nailed it on the head when you said we’re free of distractions and we’re like, conquering this thing together. And there’s a lot of power in that. Going through adversity with someone else. So, when I talked to Julianne a little more about this, she also talked about the quality of relationships and loneliness and the role various relationships serve in our lives.

HOLT-LUNSTSTAD: Finally, the last, third category gets at quality. Positive and negative aspects. How satisfied you are in your relationship or how much conflict or strain there is in the relationship. Interestingly, they all predict health outcomes. So, not only are the close, intimate, positive, meaningful relationships are really important. There's also evidence to support even casual interactions, you know, saying hello when you pass on the street or to the person bagging your groceries, or whatever, even those little moments of social connection can be beneficial.

Having a diversity of relationships may be particularly strong because different kinds of relationships might fulfill different kinds of needs that we have. And so, we shouldn’t discount these but we should recognize, however, that negativity in relationships has been associated with risk. So, not all relationships are positive. Negativity can be not only associated with stress but detrimental physical health outcomes.

ARNOLD: So, this part got me thinking about marginalized people like the BIPOC community, and how maybe loneliness is an even bigger obstacle for them because of microaggressions. This is the thing we touched on earlier when you were interviewing Mike.

You know, maybe someone is less likely to say hello to someone of color on the street running by or smile at them when they run by because of some kind of racial bias. And what if over time, does that develop into a pattern of loneliness? And if so, does that make it harder to be included, or to feel included? So, I asked Julianne about that and she said it might be true. And here’s why.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: There is some research suggests that those who are members of marginalized or stigmatized groups are at increased risk for social isolation and loneliness. That doesn’t mean that they always are, or are not. We can’t just assume that anyone is or is not isolated or lonely but it does increase one’s risk. You point to one potential source for that. That’s another point to always be conscious of. The mechanisms behind these. And how we can act to disrupt these kinds of cycles.

ARNOLD: I also, naturally, asked her if she thought that running could potentially be an avenue to build community?

SCHWARTZ: And?

ARNOLD: And, well, she says, yeah. She doesn’t run, but it sounds like her husband is a prolific runner. He’s done several marathons, ironmans, and so she’s been at these events supporting him, and she’s also a really avid hiker.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: I’ve been at these events and have seen firsthand the amount of support that is required. While my research doesn’t focus specifically on runners I have seen how there can be this sense of community around that. And there is some research to support outside of events like that, a walking or running or any exercise program. Having someone to do it with, people are more likely to stick with it. Having that support. Knowing that person is counting on you to meet at six am, you’re more likely to get out there and show up for that person depending on you. That in turn is linked to better outcomes also.

SCHWARTZ: My big takeaway from that is really that she says “someone else to do it with.” I do think that running with others reinforces the idea that you can count on those friends. It makes me think of some of the conversations I had with the Achilles athletes! But we’ll get to that later.

ARNOLD: OK, so one other thing here that I think might sort of tie in, is this idea of negative bias.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: One of the things characteristic with individuals with chronic levels of loneliness is a negative cognitive bias, or repetitive negative thinking. What this means is in ambiguous social situations there’s a tendency to perhaps assume negative intent.

ARNOLD: So, Julianne gave this example of like if you text your friend and they don’t respond right away. Your response could be, oh they’re busy, maybe they’re making dinner or they’re with their family. Or, you could think, oh that person’s ignoring me. Then you could take it a step further and actually text them and say, “Are you ignoring me?” Then you’ve created this defensive situation. That sort of energy can spread. Then you’ve put your friend in this awkward situation where they have to react to that. Versus assuming goodwill, I guess you could say. We talked about that negative feedback loop that happens and then she took it a step further to talk about some emerging research in gratitude.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: So researchers are looking at can empathizing with the other, can that help disrupt and start to lessen the repetitive negative thinking? Can we decrease that in a way to interrupt that cycle?

Another strategy is around gratitude. By expressing gratitude to someone, telling them something like, hey, I just wanted to reach out, and let you know I really love this interview, thank you so much for considering me. You are an amazing interviewer, all of these sorts of things, that will elicit, of course, a more of a positive response in return, right? By expressing gratitude by those relationships it strengthens those relationships, and creates an upward spiral instead of a downward spiral and can reduce loneliness. These are some ways that we’re trying to find to disrupt these cycles.

SCHWARTZ: Gratitude is definitely having its moment in the sun. And for good reason!

ARNOLD: Kate. I’m going to use this opportunity to tell you that I’m grateful for you. And for this podcast recording that we’re doing in this closet right now.

SCHWARTZ: Aw, that’s really sweet. I’m grateful for this closet. (Both laugh). And you, of course.

ARNOLD: We went on to talk about COVID-19 and its affect on loneliness. Really tangental to today’s conversation, but interesting stuff. But I also found it really relevant to our next conversation. And to the conversation that you and Mike had, Kate. Here’s what she said.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: And so, now the challenge is, what can we do to help reduce the health burden of this? And reduce risk. Thinking about this from not only just individual-based intervention programs, but public health policy. How do we address this on a population level? Every aspect of our life is influenced by a social component. What we do can have an effect for good or bad. So, these policies we’re implementing can either reduce or increase risk. So, I’m really excited about the future. Because this is an important turning point. I hope we can take this turning point in a positive direction and be much more consciously aware and socially aware.

PART THREE

ARNOLD: So, now we move into the final piece of this podcast puzzle. And this is all from a series of interviews that Kate conducted throughout the summer. And, just so you all know, you can find stories about all the folks she is about to talk to on our blog on Fleetfeet.com/blog.

SCHWARTZ: For part three, we learn about an often excluded group of people that created their own endurance team that now feels like a family.

I got to interview, I think, five different Achilles International athletes. I wish I could include all of these here because the conversations are really interesting. But let’s start today with a conversation I had with a woman named Lupita, who started her own chapter of Achilles where she lives in Tucson, AZ. Lupita is blind, and she was left out of sports growing up. When she got older she was determined to not only participate. And not only that, but to also help others get involved, as well.

Lupita Hernandez smiles as she pets a donkey at a race

LUPITA HERNANDEZ: My name is Lupita Hernandez. I live in Tucson, AZ. I was born in Globe, AZ and moved down here when I was two to go to the school for the deaf and blind and then I went in seventh grade to public school and on to college. I’ve been a teacher for the visually impaired and that’s a little about me.

As a child I remember really clearly, we always talk in one of the organizations I’m in, in federation of the blind about raising expectations. And I was the product, In middle school, of lowered expectations. I would have adaptive PE. We had maybe something like 20 sit ups and a couple little exercises. I remember being left out of sports as a child. And saying I wish I could do the things the other kids were doing. I would listen to them playing ball, football and other sports I wasn't able to participate in. So, I vowed that I would be in sports when I got older.

SCHWARTZ: I asked Lupita about what motivated her to start her own chapter of Achilles. And she told me that she was already sold on the idea, and then she went to a conference for the federation of the blind in Las Vegas and ended up running with a guide there who volunteers at his local Achilles chapter.

HERNANDEZ: I remember so clearly, I was going to just run around the block and I ended up doing a 5K that day with my guide I was paired with. I asked him why he liked Achilles. I remember he said, well, I was in it for reasons to try to help the community and help others but then I started to realize I was doing it for selfish reasons. I was enjoying making friends. My friends were hung out with and wanted to spend time with. I decided I wanted to do it for fun. And I thought, wow, I really want to bring that to Tucson! I’m kind of jealous that there’s an Achilles in Las Vegas. He said I’ll get you in touch with the right people to get an Achilles started in Tucson.

I think, going back to when I was younger, I was left out in sports. I didn’t want anybody else to feel left out in sports. I would talk to people that would say to me, I wish I could do that. Or, I wish I could do what you’re doing. I tell them, well you can. For me the reason for doing it was wanting to see others come together and enjoy each other, the love of sport, the love of running, the love of cycling, anything where people are included.

Because sometimes for me if I’m having a difficult time finding a guide, I might say, well, I’m just not going to do that. I didn’t want others to feel down and feel hopeless. I wanted people to be able to say, Oh, what you’re saying is if I join Achilles you can help me find someone who will want to run with me and do a marathon. Or, I really don’t want to do a marathon, Lupita, I just want to go for some walks, and go other places or meet other people, then Achilles is still the place for you.

For me, walking on a treadmill is great. But going out and getting the fresh air and the smells and talking to somebody as I am running makes the time go by so much faster. It makes the sport so much more fun. I always have somebody by my side. And I like that. That’s teamwork.

ARNOLD: For me, running is also a really social sport. And so, hearing her talk about all of those details really solidifies that special relationship that running has. It’s like, oh yeah, that’s what it’s like.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, so, before you even spoke with Juliannne, and they really resonated with me because I got the sense from everyone I spoke with that the relationships within these groups were so meaningful and authentic.

In fact, I started thinking about this because I had heard a woman promoting a book she had written about overcoming loneliness and making friends as an adult. She was talking about how difficult it can be to make good friends, and it struck me that the folks at Achilles had really found something that a lot of people are looking for.

Even when Lupita mentioned the volunteer she met in Las Vegas, it sounded like he signed up to volunteer thinking that he was doing a good deed, but before long, he realized that he wasn’t just doing community service. He was making these authentic relationships that improved his own life. And then, all of the other athletes that I spoke to, without knowing what the others said, they all described Achilles as a big family, not just a group of people they run with. Like Julianne mentioned, a marker of a satisfying relationship is one in which you have social support. You know you can count on someone when you need help, or a favor. And for an athlete like Lupita, if she is going to run outside, she typically is going to need a guide to join her. And when someone shows up to run with her, that’s confirmation that this is someone she can count on. I imagine that builds a meaningful bond between people.

Amy Saffell holds up her race medal

So, I also spoke with Amy Saffell, who is a wheelchair racer in Nashville, TN. We talked a lot about how important it is for folks who use wheelchairs or different accommodations to not be separated from those who don’t, whether that’s in sports or in life. A lot of that, we were talking about the American with Disabilities Act, some of the differences that makes. You can read more about that on the Journal if you want to hear more about that conversation. But anyway, Amy had a different experience growing up than Lupita did. Lupita was excluded from sports growing up, but Amy had access to tons of adaptive sports when she was growing up in Atlanta. She mentioned like ten different sports she was active in. This woman does everything.

AMY SAFFELL: Hi, my name is Amy Saffell. I grew up in Roswell GA outside of Atlanta. I've Lived in Nashville since 2004. And have been part of Achilles Nashville chapter since it began.

I’m the executive director of ABLE Youth. We help kids with physical disabilities learn to be independent with the help of adaptive sports as a vehicle for them to be able to do that. I’ve been Executive Director about four years. I worked in the music industry before that. I love being able to participate alongside them. I see myself in them all the time. I love thinking back to when I was their age how far I've come and giving them a real example of how far they can come.

SCHWARTZ: So, Amy is creating opportunities for disabled athletes to participate in the same events as other runners.

SAFFELL: I think participating in races does a lot. Because maybe I start first but not someone to finish first. I’m among people that don’t have disabilities. Definitely when I’m training with Achilles, when training out on the greenway. We’re among everyone else. And I go to another running group on a different night. And I’m the only person in a chair. So, you know, a lot of times in a race I’m the only one in a chair. Maybe there’s one or two other people. I think that automatically dispels a lot of misconceptions that people with disabilities aren’t capable physically, or you know, don’t get out, or have to sit at home or whatever. So I think participation in sports and specifically in races really helps to dispel that. Lots of people get to see me as a capable person. I think that's one of the great things about running. I enjoy it and get the health benefits and also I feel like whether or not I recognize it, I get to help change society little by little hopefully, you know?

ARNOLD: So, if you take anything away from our conversations today, take away this idea of gratitude and community. We will all be stronger healthier and happier if we do all of this together. I think Achilles International and Mike and Julianne’s research all provide excellent examples of this. Thanks for listening, thanks for sharing it with your friends, and have a great run.

SCHWARTZ: We’re grateful...for you.

ARNOLD: BYE!

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