You can Imagine...


When people ask me what my role is at The Avielle Foundation (TAF), I reply that I am the TAF’letics Director. At this point, their confused expression shows that they wonder if they misheard me or if perhaps I have developed a speech impediment. So I quickly explain to them that it is a conjunction of TAF and athletics. TAF has a growing number of athletes who are participating in events such as Tough Mudder, Ragnar Relays, Susanne Navasmarathons, Spartan events, etc., in an effort to fundraise for TAF while increasing their brawn and strengthening their brains.

I am one of those athletes, and when Jeremy asked me to be the TAF’letics Director, I was thrilled. Althetics are a very important part of my life and I have been touched very personally by brain illness. You may ask what’s the connection between brain health and athletics, or what does a Tough Mudder have to do with violence or compassion. Let me try to explain. When it comes to brain health and emotional wellbeing, it is becoming almost common knowledge that exercise is extremely effective in preventing, and as part of a treatment plan for, depression, anxiety, and many other forms of brain health issues. I honestly never understood why OB/GYN’s would prescribe sedentary recovery for 6 weeks post-partum, because this to me seemed like a guaranteed way to become afflicted with Post-Partum Depression.

When I heard that a relative I loved very much had died by suicide, my first impulse was to change into running clothes and go for a run. I don’t think I had ever run so fast, certainly not up that challenging hill by my house. I didn’t slow down until the sobbing overtook me as my grief and pounding heart collided and I gasped for breath. The only reason I made my way home when I did, after 4 or 5 miles, was that my husband was following behind me and I didn’t think he’d appreciate if I pulled a Forrest Gump run to the West coast and back on him. But that was what I wanted to do.  I felt a primal urge to keep on running, pounding out the bewilderment, shock, anger, and deep loss with every step.

The moment I heard the awful news, which came out of nowhere because I hadn’t known she was even struggling with depression, my reaction was a very physical one.  It was a year ago, but I still remember the sensation in my body that was, I now recognize, the typical fight-or-flight response as my body was intensely restless and before going for the run, I stood in my kitchen and realized I had no idea what to do.  And my next thought was, I have to RUN.

The science that shows how significantly continual movement and frequent exercise impacts the brain is still in its infancy; otherwise, classrooms and medical and brain health facilities would all include running tracks and yoga rooms as the main feature (hopefully this will happen in the near future). At TAF we consider research into the effect of exercise on our brains, as well as programs that emphasize the importance of this link, a priority.

John J. Ratey, MD, in his fascinating book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, effectively summarizes four reasons exercise is good for your brain: It counteracts the effects of chronic stress; It improves your mood; It increases your motivation; It changes the structure of your brain throughout life, helping to protect you from neurodegenerative diseases.

However, researchers are increasingly publishing studies that reveal the transformative effects of exercise on the brain. If you are having a rough time, feeling unmotivated, perhaps experiencing some depression or anxiety, and you force yourself to go for a run, starting with one mile and eventually returning home after four miles, you will most likely feel the mood boost that comes with the flood of serotonin and other feel-good neuro-chemicals induced by moving your muscles. In addition, we feel better about ourselves when we face physical challenges and persevere. With exercise come a better physique and self-confidence.  With the discipline we cultivate through setting and achieving exercise goals we garner success in all other aspects of our lives, from marriage and relationships, to parenting, to business and financial success.

We know there is a direct mind-body connection, and we know that moving, throughout the day, not just during our one-hour spin class, is paramount to our survival. Evolutionarily- and biologically-speaking, we are either growing or decaying. The outcome is determined by our activity, because if we are not active, then we are not growing, because the human body was designed to be continuously pushed. This applies to the brain as much as to any other organ in our body. And when your exercise has deep meaning, such as we experience as TAF’letes, the benefits go beyond anything that can be measured in a science lab. Exercise and the discipline to maintain physical health lead to health, wealth, and happiness.

Susanne Navas

Director, TAF’Letics and Communications

Check out my blog: The Reboot Coach