Why Helping Others Helps Us On the Run

By: Karla Bruning

When the 2018 Boston Marathon forecast called for 30-degree temps, torrential rain, and a relentless headwind gusting up to almost 40 mph, I was tempted to hit the snooze button.

"Are you really going to do this?" my mom asked as I rooted through her closet to find toss-away clothes to wear.

"I have to," I said. "I raised money for charity."

I had made a promise to the American Red Cross and to the people who supported me: you donate, I run, and we all do some good.

Bundled in six layers of clothing and two hats, I sloshed through unforgiving squalls to finish the coldest Boston Marathon in 30 years. How merciless was it? More than 10 percent of the 26,954 runners received medical treatment, mainly for hypothermia, and just over 4 percent of marathoners dropped out.

“Those were the most brutal conditions I've ever run in," tweeted TCS New York City Marathon champion and Olympic silver medalist Shalane Flanagan.

But it proved to be the race performance that makes me proudest—and motivates me to toe the line again. Why? Running for charity affects people in positive, profound, and measurable ways. A well-worn adage among charity teams calls it adding “meaning to your miles."

That's precisely the idea, says Vic Strecher, Ph.D., M.P.H., a leading behavioral scientist and professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. “There are motives and there are motives," Strecher says.

“At the pinnacle of existence is self-transcendence—thinking about things bigger than yourself," he says, referencing psychologist Abraham Maslow's “Hierarchy of Needs." “Maslow said, 'People who have a self-transcending purpose probably do much better.' And now, all the data show that. People with a self-transcending purpose end up living healthier lives."

Indeed, a consensus of research confirms that people with a strong sense of purpose live longer, sleep better, are more relaxed, more resilient to pain and stress, and even have better sex. They're also less likely to develop depression, disabilities, heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and inflammatory cell reactions that can cause cancer and other diseases.

“Physiologically, it is actually good for you to think about other people," Strecher says.

Generosity is equally beneficial. Helpful people live longer, are happier, have lower levels of stress, and even find more success in their careers. Researchers have even discovered an endorphin-fueled “helper's high" similar to the “runner's high." By helping others, we inadvertently help ourselves.

“Many people I know who are 'selfless' do it because it benefits them," Strecher says. “They're improving their own health, mental health, emotional health, and resilience by thinking about other people."

One of those runners is Alan Jones, 48, from Wigan, England. He started running at the age of 43 because of Joining Jack, a non-profit dedicated to treating and curing Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The charity, named in honor of a 10-year-old local boy with the condition, puts on fundraising races in the Wigan area.

“I only started running due to the charity, which has led to me running other events," Jones says. “It got a couch potato off my backside and doing something I never dreamed of. It helps my fitness and stress levels."

He's fundraised over the course of four 10Ks and one half-marathon, running 5 miles home from work as he trains. Each of his last three 10Ks have been faster than the one before, he says. “It's all down to Joining Jack," he says. “My son is the same age and I want to help a sick little boy. So I run."

Sure, not all charity runners have totally selfless motives. Many race for non-profits to gain entry into an in-demand race. That was certainly my aim when I ran for Team Continuum at the 2007 New York City Marathon, my first 26.2-miler.

But after experiencing my own “helper's high," I've fundraised three more times because I felt compelled. Already armed with a coveted entry into the Boston Marathon, I ran for charity because 2018 was the race's “Year of Service," honoring the altruistic spirit.

I'm not alone. Runners drummed up more than $36 million for charity at the Boston Marathon in 2018 and the 30 largest U.S. run, walk, bike, dance marathon, and other charity event programs raised nearly $1.45 billion in 2017. It's "just the tip of the iceberg," says David Hessekiel, president of Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, which tracks participation in fundraising events. Some are repeat fundraisers, motivated by a goal that's greater than themselves.

Hideki Kinoshita from Queens, New York, known as “Charity Runner Kino" on social media, says he has raised $86,500 for seven charities over the course of nearly 150 marathons and ultra-marathons. He first started in 2009 when his girlfriend enlisted him to race and raise funds for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) to honor her mother, who was battling the disease. She died nine days after their race.

 


 

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It "opened my eyes to the compassion of those around us, " Kinoshita, 39, says, "and the potential that each of us has to positively impact a charitable cause."

He went on to run 14 marathons in 13 consecutive weekends for PanCAN, setting four marathon personal records in the process. In the following years, racing for charity spurred Kinoshita on to greater physical feats. Ten years after the events of 9/11, the New York City native ran a lifetime best of nearly 105 miles in 24 hours to raise funds for the World Trade Center Health Program, asking donors for a per mile pledge.

“There is no doubt that had it not been for my fundraisers, I would not have been able to push as hard and last the duration of the race," he says.

Research bears that out. “Transcending motives actually keep you in the program much longer," Strecher says.

Of course, you don't have to run for charity to reap the benefits. “Start thinking about what you're running for that might be bigger than yourself," Strecher says. “You might run to have a strong body and spirit and resilience, so that you can fulfill your self-transcending purpose."

Indeed, my husband runs (and goes to the doctor and eats well) so he'll have his best chance of living a long life for our daughter's sake. His dad died when my husband was 16, mine when I was 25. Neither lived to meet their granddaughter, and their absences are never far from our minds.

“The question is: can we build greater transcendence in people? Can we get people to stop thinking just about themselves and their own personal best, and start thinking about bigger things?" Strecher asks. “That's a really important question that our society has to face right now in an increasingly turbulent and divisive time."

Psychiatrist, neurologist, and holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl put it another way. “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us," Frankl wrote in his seminal work, “Man's Search for Meaning."

Perhaps we need look no further than Greek marathoner Stylianos Kyriakides, arguably the world's first charity runner, who pulled off a stunning upset at the 50th Boston Marathon in 1946. Ravaged by Nazi occupation during World War II, Greece was suffering through famine and civil war.

“I knew I had to win this marathon to show the plight of our poor nation," he wrote in a letter to his wife.

Race officials initially barred Kyriakides from running because he was so malnourished. But he succeeded in capturing the Boston Marathon crown and relief for Greece. He set out on a media blitz to raise aid for his homeland, coincidently the birthplace of the marathon, and brought home $250,000 (nearly $3.4 million when adjusted for inflation) and 25,000 tons of food, clothing, medicine, and other goods."

“How can you beat a guy like that?" defending champion and eventual runner-up John A. Kelley said afterward. “He wasn't running for himself, he was doing it for his country."

Altruism, it seems, might be the key to a long, healthy, happy, and successful road—not just in running, but in life too.