I was born in a little Argentine province bordering on Chile — San Juan, one of the poorest in my country. At that time, there were no smartphones, no internet, and only a few hours of cartoons each week on TV. With little else to do, I grew up running.
It was a desert. The adults would nap during the middle of the day; it was too hot to do anything else. But we kids, we did not like to nap. We climbed to the tops of the trees during sandstorms to feel the force of the swaying boughs. We imagined the hot wind at our backs to be the fiery breath of monsters and dragons, forever chasing us. We ran like free, wild animals.
At high school, we played sports. Basketball, football — and running. None of us were overweight; the food we ate, we grew ourselves, high in calories — but we burned all those calories, especially in the winters when it was extremely cold.
Opportunities to have a medical check-up were rare, but I got checked when I was 18. Life is not always kind; I was diagnosed with a serious illness. After complicated surgery, I was close to the end of my life — fever, shaking, infections. So many needles. The pain was unbearable. But I was fit. Unexpectedly, my symptoms disappeared. After five days without fever, they sent me home.
It was two years before I could run again. Slowly at first, just a few kilometres at a time, to keep active. I ran because I wanted to be as fit as possible, because I knew that at some point, my illness would return.
As I ran, the energy, power, and wellness returned to my body, and so too came the memories and joys of my childhood. I felt the monster’s breath at my back again, and I ran.
The Science of Running
I am a doctor. There is a certain magic about running and its power to heal, but I cannot ignore my profession and my medical knowledge. In fact, scientific information about the benefits of exercise has really only come to light in the last ten years. These include: the calories you burn even after you work out; the endorphins released while running that combat depression and anxiety; the highly oxygenated blood that boosts toxin removal, the heightened neurogenesis that sharpens mental acuity.
Running is linked to lower risks of cancer, longevity and a higher quality of sleep. Running is now known to help prevent and treat diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, migraines, strokes, myocardial infarctions, Alzheimer’s and cancer. It improves memory, eyesight, sexual activity, self-esteem and job productivity.
In my own field — hepatology — fatty liver is one of the most common diseases worldwide. The fat inflames the liver chemically, similar to that caused by heavy drinking. It is the number one cause of liver transplantation. The leading cause of fatty liver is a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. The best treatment for this disease is to keep active — running many times a week is perfect — and to follow a healthy diet based on vegetables, fruit and fish.
We are biologically prepared to run. Our forebears survived by persistence hunting and avoiding predators. We are like a machine shaped to walk long distances or run every day in an environment where food was scarce. Many modern diseases have their basis in the fact that we are not active any more, and we eat a lot.
I am a lucky man. To this day, my illness has never returned. I live in an age of smartphones that help me to check my speed, the calories spent on my training, my heart rate, and to stay in contact with the friends of my childhood, sharing our battles again with the monsters and dragons always behind us, training on the streets and feeling the power of our legs, the strength of our breath trying to catch as much oxygen as possible, the heavy beating of our heart in our chest, exactly as it was all those decades ago.
Dr. Pedro is an Internal Medicine and Hepatology Specialist at Family Medical Practice