Why running saved me from dementia

Running helped me deal with the biggest stress of my life

Why running saved me from dementia
Ginger Liu

I’ve been running all my adult life but I was never a serious runner. I never entered races or battled with my personal best. I was anxious enough in my twenties without the added stress of winning or losing.

My anxiety began during puberty

The combination of overactive hormones and the conscious self meant that my racing mind thought I was too fat, too white, and too spotty. I compared myself to beautiful models and went on diets and exercise regimes. But I liked eating. So I began running because I didn’t have to diet if I ran.

Running around the world

I started running regularly in Hyde Park in London. It always seemed to be a struggle but I was outside and away from the city and that comforted a country girl like me.

I moved to San Francisco and ran up steep hills and across parks to run away my fear of living in a foreign country. I moved to Chicago and ran at the gym rather than face the external weather extremes.

I moved to Los Angeles and ran around my Hollywood neighborhood in the early mornings before picking up coffee at Pete’s in Larchmont Village. I ran through quiet streets to avoid the traffic pollution of Santa Monica Boulevard. The heat exhausted me but I ran to think about my business and to clear my mind. I was a business owner and finally in control of my life and running helped me find solutions and create opportunities.

When it stops being just about me

Then my mother was diagnosed with dementia, I came to stay with her for part of the year. I ran on the beaches and through picturesque pinewoods close to my mother’s home. I was anxious for a different reason. This time it wasn’t about me. I ran for hours, wishing my mother didn’t have dementia and I was trapped by the dilemma of leaving her to live and die in a nursing home or giving up my life to care for her. Running helped me live with the latter decision. Carers would visit for a couple of hours, three or four times a week and I would use this time to run and clear my head.

Trail running helped me mentally and physically. Writing had always helped me move the stresses in my head to paper but running helped me clear my mind and calm my nerves. Maybe it was the pine trees or the sea air but it was the medicine I needed.

I ran five times a week and ran long on weekends. If I didn’t run, it would ruin my whole day and I would take the stress out on my mother. The tension would increase and I’d feel trapped and unable to cope. I needed time and space to breath and running helped me cope with the rest of the day.

As the disease progressed, my mother needed more care until I was just as confined as her to her home. Carers would continue to visit so that I could run and feel free for a moment on those long beach runs.

Every morning I would dread taking mum to the bathroom because her yelling and screaming would exhaust me. In the beginning, I took her actions personally. The hatred in her eyes and the screaming in my ears would physically shake me.

but my mother was dying and could not be left alone for one minute. The confines of the home took its toll on my mind and body.

Ready to be me again

On August 3, my mother passed away. I wanted to train and run ultra-marathons but the whole mourning process combined with repeated knee and calf injuries stopped me from running for months.

I ran my first official half marathon last year and my running schedule was back on track. But it wasn’t until June this year when I began to feel more myself again. Ready to run. Ready to be me again. Ready to look forward to the rest of my life.

Read next: Never In the Cover of Night
Ginger Liu
See all posts by Ginger Liu