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Getting Into the American Obsession with Running

Running at night (Photo: Reuters)
Running at night (Photo: Reuters)

One of the first things I noticed when I got to school in Virginia was how many people ran outside. They seemed to be everywhere, at all times of day or night – people jogging through the main quad, students walking around in exercise gear, traffic jams as runners tried to navigate through slower-moving students on their way to class.

I was not a sporty person before I came here. My high school life was pretty hectic, and when I had time away from schoolwork I was too tired to work out. Even when I went to college in China and had a bit more spare time, working out was not part of my regular routine.

Coming to university here totally challenged my belief that working out is something you only do when you have lots of free time. I hear my friends say, “I have so much work to do,” and then a minute later, “I’m going for a run.”

One of my housemates is incredibly busy during the day, so she started getting up very early to make time for running. She is not obligated or forced to, but she wants to.

I came to realize that the reason why there are so many students out running at every time of day here on campus is that they do it whenever they can make time for it.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user wokka
Creative Commons photo by Flickr user wokka

Last spring I worked in a gym on campus for a while, swiping ID cards when students or faculty came in. One of my shifts started at 5:45am, and I was so surprised to see that there were always people there earlier than me, waiting for the building to be open. I was yawning as I swiped their cards, while they were energetically walking towards the equipment.

During the two days when classes were canceled due to Hurricane Sandy, the gym near my house was always packed whenever I went. Now, in December, you can still see runners in t-shirts and shorts jogging past pedestrians bundled up in coats and boots. Yes, people here make time for working out and running whenever they can.

I have been trying to figure out why people are obsessed with running and working out so much in a university where life is already very intense. I guess it has something to do with how the culture defines what it means to be a successful college student. It is believed in my school here that you not only should have outstanding grades and rich extracurricular activity experiences, but also a healthy lifestyle. Actually, a healthy body is what you should prioritize in order to be successful in other aspects of life.

At one point I decided to try this approach towards working out, squeezing in time for a jog while having loads of homework waiting for me. I remember that on that night my tiredness felt just gone and I got very productive. In fact, I enjoy an increase in productivity every time I jog before starting my homework.

I’ve started doing this regularly, and have been trying to think about running as a benefit to my schoolwork. Instead of staring at my laptop screen and blanking for longer before actually start to write, I will put on my shirt and shorts and go for a run. Some inspirations just hit me, magically and unexpectedly, when I am running. I’m not wasting my work time because running helps me work more efficiently.

Running not only increases my productivity, but also helps relieve my stress. My dad used to be a runner, and still keeps working out everyday. He is quite aware of the fact that my college life is more challenging and sometimes stressful here compared to my college life in China. Whenever I tend to freak out during our Skype conversation, he always reminds me of how I can benefit from running. I always keep his suggestion in mind, and indeed, running helps get my mind off of pressure, and plants the seed of a positive life attitude in my heart.

To conclude, I want to share a quote from a famous Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, which helped encourage me to run regularly: “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.”