How running like an animal makes us human

Jun 09, 2022 | by Network

To find calm in the chaos, we are encouraged to work on our inner selves, to practice mindfulness, to meditate and to get our minds ‘right’. But, writes Jason Karp PhD, the science shows that by first focusing on a healthier body, we can prime the mind to follow suit.

“Is this a slippery slope?” I asked the doctor in the hallway of the hospital. 

We were standing about ten feet away from my mother’s corner room at the end of the long hallway, the vinyl tile floor feeling hard on my legs after my morning run. Inside the room, my mother lay in the white, starch-sheeted bed, in pain from bone cancer, which had metastasized from the breast cancer that had been diagnosed twelve years earlier. She had just returned to the room from an ultrasound that revealed bilateral deep vein thrombosis – blood clots in both of her legs. 

“Yes,” the doctor replied, solemnly.

I looked out the hallway window that overlooked the parking lot, the red maple and pitch pine trees off in the distance, to collect my thoughts and emotions.  

For the next two weeks, I sat with my twin brother by our mother’s bedside, holding her hands until all was literally said and done. It was the most emotional experience I’ve ever had. What was particularly difficult was to watch my mom’s physical decline and how it affected her mind and, ultimately, her will to live. When I made the trip from San Diego to New Jersey two weeks earlier, I never thought I would be planning a funeral. I didn’t pack a suit.  

In her youth and for many of her adult years, my mom lived a physical life. She was a tough physical education teacher from the Bronx. She competed in the roller derby. She skydived. She played semi-professional softball with her iconic four-fingered glove (she had five fingers like everyone else, but baseball gloves in those days had only four). She raised twin sons as a single mother after our father passed away when we were eight years old. And she physically cared for her own elderly mother, who was her best friend. 

Every day over the final two weeks of my mother’s life, I ran every morning before going to the hospital. Sometimes, I ran in the dark at night after leaving. I ran to find myself and to gain the strength that I needed for my mother. And for myself. Running gives us an enormous amount of strength. 

Why? Why does running give us strength?

I have spent nearly four decades working on the answer. I even had to write a whole book to explain it to myself.

Somewhere between chasing other animals for food and clicking a mouse to purchase a toaster oven on, we stopped living a physical life. Instead, we are encouraged to work on our inner selves, to practice mindfulness, to meditate, and to get our minds right. Social media gives us “Monday Motivation” and shouts daily positivity. Law of attraction followers say that our thoughts directly change our lives, that we can manifest what we want from the universe. Parents, teachers, Olympic athletes, and practically everyone else tell us that we can achieve anything that we set our minds to. Many books are written about mindset and how our minds can control everything, from our love lives to cancerous tumor growth. Prominent people tell us to start from our why and look inward to live our best life.

But that’s all wrong. Or, at least, incomplete. 

We are physical animals, first. You think a lion asks himself, “What’s my why?” No! The lion is the king of the jungle. He acts like the king because he knows no other way. He uses his body every day to intimidate other animals, chase them for lunch, protect his family, and rule over his kingdom. 

If we focus on the outside – making our physical bodies strong, resilient, enduring – that changes us on the inside

If we focus on the outside – making our physical bodies strong, resilient, enduring – that changes us on the inside. It strengthens our belief in ourselves and what we can do. It fills the hole created by insecurity. 

This transformation isn’t some pseudo-holistic platitude, with false promises that making bigger biceps makes you confident and successful. It’s science. 

By working on the outside, you can actually alter your physiology, change your brain chemistry, and change your outlook on life… and on yourself.

Many scientific studies have shown that exercise causes profound changes on the inside that positively affect your creativity, your cognition, and your confidence, from the opioids and cannabinoids released in the brain that cause a perceived euphoria, aka the ‘runner’s high’, to the increase in serotonin that makes exercise even more effective than prescription drugs for ameliorating depression, to neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons in the brain) that improves the way we think, including our problem-solving, creativity, memory, and learning. Research has shown that people perform better on tests of creative thinking after exercise compared to when the tests are taken without exercising first.

Neurogenesis even occurs across different species – research has shown that mice given access to a running wheel for a few months have more than twice the number of new cells formed in their brains compared to mice with no access to a running wheel. Whether you are a mouse or a human, a sound body creates a sound mind. 

The changes that exercise causes reach even the tiniest of your body’s cells, where the business of life occurs, and the nucleic acids and bases that create the helical strands of your DNA.

When you work out, you create a sound external, which creates a sound internal

These changes all start by working out. When you work out, you create a sound external, which creates a sound internal. You create a sound body, which creates a sound mind.

When you create a sound body, which creates a sound mind, you are enabled and empowered to live the life you want, the life you care about, the life you desire. 

Your life doesn’t start from the inside. It starts from the outside – because you are an animal. 

Every human has three parts: body, brain, and mind. When they work together and are equally balanced, life is great and hums along the way it’s supposed to. The body would be strong, resilient, and enduring, the brain would be buzzing with electrical activity, and the mind would be analytical, confident, and emotionally intelligent, navigating challenges and figuring out solutions to problems. 

Unfortunately, few people are blessed with such a balance. Body, brain and mind often work in conflict with one another. They all want to be the boss. But there can be only one boss. And that’s the body.

People tend to think that the brain sits atop the pyramid, controlling the body, but it’s actually the other way around. The body is the Chief Executive Officer, and the brain is the Chief Operating Officer.

While the brain oversees your body’s entire operation, it works in service to your body. That’s what it evolved to do. Your brain evolved from your body’s movements to regulate your body and manage its physiology so that it can efficiently move and interact with the world around you. Walking and running on two legs, which evolved from the anatomical change in the pelvis and is among the most complex and sophisticated of all physical movements, was the basis for the evolution of your brain. Physical activity is so essential to your brain that it is imperative for it to function properly.

But we sit at our desks all day. Our lives have become unbalanced. Our body was never meant to stop running and sit at our desk all day. Because the body is the boss.

When we lose the ability to move the body, we lose our Chief Executive Officer, and mental health – the functioning of the brain and the mind – rapidly declines.

Over the final two weeks of my mother’s life, I watched how her physical decline affected her mind and changed her thoughts. She went from a physically active woman who played semi-professional basketball and softball, competed in the roller derby, skydived, and had a career as a high school physical education teacher, to being unable to walk to the bathroom by herself. She lost hope and wanted to die. “Where did that young woman who skated in the roller derby go?” I asked her in the final few days of her life.

To live life fully, you need to see the body and the brain being interconnected parts of the same entity, of the same human experience. When you do, you can know all that needs to be known.

The body and the brain are two parts of the same physical living being. Just because there is something unique about human cognition doesn’t mean that the brain is independent from the body. Our efforts to understand the nature of the human brain should, therefore, be commensurate with our efforts to understand the nature of the body and, ultimately, the nature of life.

Your heart, your muscles, your brain, and all your other organs are all parts. They mean little by themselves. You can’t understand the value of life’s process by separating the parts from the process, or the process from the parts. When you separate the parts from the process, there is no process; there are only parts. Parts without a process have no motion, no purpose. They’re lifeless. Instead of being like life, filled with motion and purpose, they are the antithesis of life.

To fully understand the role each part plays in your life, in the way you see and interact with the world, you have to see the brain as part of your whole physical existence, not separate from the whole, not working at your desk, by itself. Your brain never works by itself.

While the cells in your other organs, like your heart and kidneys, perform their assigned functions and don’t represent any other cells or functions, the cells of your brain represent and even control functions occurring elsewhere in your body. The brain works with your heart, your kidneys, your muscles, your lungs, your blood vessels, your sensory neurons on your fingertips, and with every other part of your body to create your physical existence, to enable the whole process to work.

And it works the process by converting inputs from all its neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters to outputs to create the thoughts, ideas, and perceptions that make up your mind.

Training the body changes the brain, which affects the mind. Training the body eliminates the conflict between body, brain and mind, making all three parts work in harmony. 

There are times in your life that will test you, that will throw you on your back. But if you remember where you came from, if you remember that you are indeed an animal with biology similar to that of many other animals, then you remember that to live life fully, you must fully live physically. And then, you can train your body to change your brain to affect your mind, connecting the three parts of yourself that create your earthly existence.

Ready to work out?

It’s not enough to read or tell your clients about how training their body changes their brain, which affects their mind. They need to act on what they learn. It’s time to create a sound body to create a sound mind. It’s time to work out. None of the workouts below are easy. But neither is life, if your clients live life with passion and purpose. 

Workout 1: VO2max Pyramid

9 reps | 1-3 minutes | 1½ minutes recovery

Duration (min:sec)Perceived ExertionIntensity
Rep #11:009>95% max HR
Rep #21:309>95% max HR
Rep #32:009>95% max HR
Rep #42:309>95% max HR
Rep #53:009>95% max HR
Rep #62:309>95% max HR
Rep #72:009>95% max HR
Rep #81:309>95% max HR
Rep #91:009>95% max HR

Workout 2: Obstacle Course
Find a public obstacle course near you, try this simulation workout, or create your own. Run on grass, dirt, or rugged terrain. Move immediately from one exercise to the next.  

Run5-10 min
Run5-10 min
Monkey Barsswing from one end to other
Run5-10 min
Fence Climbclimb over and back
Run5-10 min
Rope Climbclimb up and down
Run5-10 min
Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups10

Workout 3: Hill Sprints

10 reps | 30-60 seconds | jog/walk downhill recovery

For this workout, find a short, steep hill that will take you about 30 to 60 seconds to sprint. Jog slowly or walk back down the hill to recover after each rep.  

Duration (sec)Intensity
Rep #130-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #230-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #330-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #430-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #530-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #630-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #730-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #830-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #930-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy
Rep #1030-60very fast
Recoveryjog/walk downhillvery easy

Workout 4: Sprint/Body-Weight Circuit 

12 exercises | 30 sec/10-15 reps | 1-2 circuits | 2 minutes recovery

This complex circuit that constantly changes the movements sequences sprint running with a lower-body exercise, upper-body exercise, and core exercise for a total-body and brain workout. Move immediately from one exercise to the next and recover for 2 minutes if you do the circuit twice. Make the sprints fast and challenging.

Sprint30 sec
Squat Jumps10-15
Pike Crunches10-15
Sprint30 sec
Squat Side Steps10-15 each side
Sprint30 sec
Mountain Climbers10-15 each leg
Triceps Dips10-15
Russian Twists10-15

Article based on the TED talk and adapted from the book, Work Out: The Revolutionary Method of Creating a Sound Body to Create a Sound Mind

Jason Karp, PhD, MBA

Jason is an American running coach, exercise physiologist, and writer who recently lived and coached in Kenya. In addition to authoring 13 books and speaking on the TED stage, Jason is the 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and two-time recipient of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Community Leadership Award. His REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™ certification has been earned by coaches and fitness professionals in 25 countries. Work Out and his other books are available on Amazon and at

Network is an education subscription service that offers a broad range of upskilling courses for fitness and wellness professionals. Established in 1987, Network has played a pivotal role in the continual evolution of the fitness industry.

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