I lost my job in December. The writing had been on the wall since the first round of layoffs in July. No one was surprised. The company treated the departed well and ushered us out the doors with severance papers in hand. I’d been employed since I was 14—thank you, Stan at the Cottage Café, for giving me my first shot—and had no clue what to do, so I just started running.
I’ve been a runner since I was in junior high, so it’s not like I lost my job and went full Forrest Gump. I ran my first marathon in October while still employed. (A complete disaster.) Without the constraints of a desk job and with newfound free time on my hands, I ran whenever and for however long I wanted. Gone were the days of squeezing in five miles before work. I sure as hell didn’t have anywhere else to be.
Turns out I’m not the only one.
A 2011 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that white-collar workers exercise more when they’re unemployed. “From an economical jargon, the time cost or opportunity cost is now lower,” said Dhaval Dave, co-author of the study and economics professor at Bentley University. “So you should see a lot more people exercising.”
The seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for New York City, where I live, was 8.8 percent in December 2012, exactly one percentage point higher than the national rate of 7.8, according to the Department of Labor. But how can you tell if some stranger walking down the street is one of your fellow out-of-work citizens? It’s unlikely you’ll see them in the unemployment line; applying online is remarkably stress-free. Since college, I’d toiled away at various publications in midtown Manhattan skyscrapers before I joined the ranks of the unemployed. I’d never explored my neighborhood on a weekday—who are all you people?—let alone gone running in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on a Monday afternoon. It was like wandering around a music festival alone, barefoot, and on LSD, staring into the eyes of passerby: Are you unemployed, too, man?
“Your occupation is your identity,” Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist, told me. “The social rejection of losing your job can be very difficult. You have too much time for rumination to get lost in your thoughts and worries. So it’s really important to have a routine."
Do you remember the last time you had literally nothing to do? The bills were all paid, dishes done, laundry folded, fridge packed with provisions—all you had to do was decide between Sportscenter and cartoons? When you lose your job, you lose the structure. You can make all the to-do lists you want, but they’re completely worthless unless you’re diligent. (Newsflash: many people are not good with time management.) Acclaimed sports medicine physician Dr. Jordan Metzl emphasized the importance of exercising if you’re unemployed. “There’s a lot of data that your psychological health—anxiety, depression, all kinds of things—is so tremendously impacted [by exercise],” Metzl said. “The thing is, is to do it and to do it regularly. Workouts are helpful because they help structure your free time.”
The term funemployment is fundamentally stupid. There’s nothing fun about being unemployed, even with severance checks. Online job listings are depressing—in case you haven’t looked at a newspaper since 2008, there are not many jobs right now—and that is without the crushing panic you feel if you spend an afternoon looking at cookware you can’t afford online instead of applying for jobs. Running, even in the middle of a deep freeze in New York, was my recess. Everything went out the window—rent, health insurance, bills—and the whole world was greener on the other side, if only for nine miles. Maybe I’ll have my own start-up and make a quick million! I’d think. (No relevant tech experience.) Perhaps I’ll buy a crumbling mansion in Detroit and fix it up! (Not enough money for a down payment.) I’ll write the next great American novel! (Tried that already, turned out poorly.)
Still, it didn’t matter. On those frigid, sunny afternoons, my head was clear. “It’s the pure endorphins that get released in the brain when we run—we know how pleasurable that runner’s high is. That’ll put you in a good mood. I think it can help concentration and creativity,” said Greenberg, whose husband trained for a marathon during the six months he was recently unemployed. He found out in the airport en route to the race that he’d been hired for a new gig.
“Some people can go into a downward spiral,” Greenberg said. “But hopefully some sort of exercise will keep you sane.”
I’m still running, and I haven’t gone crazy—yet.
Bill Bradley (@billbradley3) is a writer living in Brooklyn.