Running alone is bad?

Science is great. You have an idea, you write for a grant, and then you get to test the idea. Sometimes, you get a big breakthrough. Other times, people misrepresent your conclusions. Take, for example, this story, which suggests that running alone is hazardous to your health. From Forbes:

Many runners contend that jogging alone offers the opportunity to enjoy nature or appreciate an urban landscape, while giving the brain and the body a beneficial workout.

But new research with rats suggests that running solo might not offer the perceived benefits and, in fact, may actually be bad for runners when combined with social isolation.

The scientists behind the study report that mice forced to live and run by themselves have less brain cell growth than those that get to run with other rats.

The implications for humans aren’t clear.

But the study does show “that the social environment plays an important role in determining how a basic function like physical activity affects the brain and body,” said Bruce S. McEwen, a professor of neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University in New York City, who’s familiar with the study findings.

Running Alone May Offer Diminished Rewards

Based on the headline, you might think that scientists had found some hard evidence that humans who run by themselves are prone to a specific injury or disease. Instead, the study showed that rats who not only run alone, but live in complete isolation, have less brain cell growth. Could it be that those area of the brain keyed to social interaction don’t develop? Maybe. But it seems sensationalist to jump from this study to the premise that people who don’t live in isolation are hurting themselves by running alone.

The study’s co-author, Elizabeth Gould, made a great point:

For one thing, “rats are highly motivated to run. If you give them access to a running wheel, they will run without fail. This is a universally motivating behavior. This is not true for humans — many humans are not motivated to exercise.”

That might be an understatement.

The potential brain-numbing effects of running alone is just one more thing for me to think about when I run in the Six Tunnels Half-Marathon this Saturday. Great.

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