Five months ago, my kids and I were blissfully savoring the last days of Summer. We went to the beach, had impromptu playdates with friends, and visited family. Some days we did nothing at all except talk, laugh, and play together. Other days we took trips to amusement parks and children's museums and even took some weekend getaways.
But, through it all, I ran. Every few days, I would lace up my sneakers, crank up my music, and head out the door as soon as my husband arrived home from work. It was my alone time, set aside to take care of myself without any responsibilities or distractions, a lofty goal when you have two tiny humans in your charge.
Then the inevitable happened. Life got in the way. Suddenly, I was driving both kids to soccer practice, hustling for freelance writing assignments, and trying to convince my aging parents to move from my childhood home to a retirement community. But I pushed through my "to-do" list, battling exhaustion and anxiety and, eventually, letting my runs fall by the wayside.
And, just like that — bam! — I came down with shingles. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Preventions, shingles (aka adult chicken pox) most often occurs in the 60-plus age group. Although I am still years away from becoming an AARP member, you're most susceptible whenever your immunity is down, especially during stressful times.
So it shouldn't have come as a big surprise when I woke up covered in a rash one fateful morning. But it did. Luckily, the weeks I spent laid up in bed gave me plenty of time to think about why I should live a healthier lifestyle. Yes, part of it is vanity. I want to look good in a bathing suit just as much as the next girl. But, more than anything, I love running because it makes me feel good.
"Clients who run regularly have a multitude of psychological benefits, including the physical release of anxiety," said Dr. Talia Mandel, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at New York University. "Those who have a sedentary life are more likely to experience the impact of anxiety and stress. Thus, I would recommend running in order to counter that impact, as well as to increase focus, determination, and a general habit of self-care."
In my case, taking on too much — which I often do — is a big trigger for stress. As my husband will attest, I am no good to anybody when I spread myself too thin. I become short-tempered, angry, and impatient, which is exactly why running isn't just a way to stay fit. It's a lifeline that keeps me afloat when I feel like I'm sinking.
"Exercise helps you feel great in your own skin," says Caroline Jordan, owner of Caroline Jordan Fitness in San Francisco. "There's something about exercise that makes you feel strong. And, that feeling of inner strength leads to increased self-confidence and self-worth, which are some of the most valuable side effects of consistent exercise."
In retrospect, letting my running routine drop to the bottom of my "to-do" list probably wasn't the wisest idea. These days, it's still tough to drop everything to go for a run, especially when I'm juggling deadlines, kids, and dinner . . . often at the same time. But I'm trying harder to let things slide. My 4-year-old daughter's hair is usually styled in a messy ponytail instead of a french braid. I rarely remember to change out of my workout clothes before school pick-up. But I'm getting better at prioritizing what is most important to me.
When I was first diagnosed, my doctor jokingly told me the only real way to prevent shingles is by living a stress-free life. While that might be an impossible task (without taking up residence in a bubble), I try to look at running as my daily medicine. That doesn't mean I run every single day, or even every other day most of the time. But whenever I do hit my stride and crank up my music, it's a constant reminder that putting myself first doesn't necessarily mean putting my loved ones last. It just means taking care of myself so that I can, in turn, be a better wife, mother, and friend.