Running and Mental Health

Parent and Child riding bikes on Cuckoo Trail Footpath

This is one of my favourite places to walk and run – the cuckoo trail in East Sussex!

It is hard to open a newspaper without seeing something about the nation’s mental health. And if it isn’t an article about mental health – then our physical health and the exercise we take are being discussed. Recent research tells us that 40% of middle-aged adults take less than 10 minutes brisk walk a month. This is despite the paper published in February 2015 by the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges – which examines the evidence and concludes that:

“Regular exercise can prevent dementia, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression, heart disease, and other common serious conditions – reducing the risk of each by at least 30%. This is better than many drugs.”

I have been a runner (well more of a slow plodder) for most of my adult life. Like many people, I started running to keep fit and to lose weight. But that is not why I keep running. I keep running because it makes me feel better!

So I have been interested to see a number of things over the last year – starting with the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest – which summarises the current state of research on the impact of running on our brains and emotions. Then there has been Prince Harry – talking about his own mental health difficulties and – of course – the Royals’ involvement with the London Marathon and their charity Heads Together – aimed at dispelling the stigma around mental health. It seems that running and mental health are truly on the agenda and it has got me thinking about ways of sharing this with people. It’s an argument that doesn’t really need to be made if you already run as, chances are, you keep running as you have discovered one way or another that running does much more than keep you physically fit.

Recent research indicates that even a 30-minute run can add 7 hours to your life – with runners living up to 3 years longer than non-runners. But it is usually other things that keep people running with anecdotal accounts of improved concentration, better mood, and a stiller or calmer mind. You can read the research review yourself here, but if you don’t want to penetrate the research (it is rather dense but you can follow the link to read it in full) I can summarise it as follows:

Different sorts of running have slightly different impacts on our minds and bodies – whether you are a long slow plodder, a sprinter, an interval trainer, or a runner of “ridiculously extreme long-distances”…………………. There is evidence of improved cognitive function in runners – with increased connectivity within the brain leading to improved working memory, self-control, and executive function (planning and organisation) as well as cognitive flexibility (switching between tasks). There is evidence that running changes the chemicals in the brain – leading to feelings of euphoria; running gives subjective feelings of relaxation and a “quiet mind” and helps people to regulate their emotions. Running may lead to the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis – although this is only based on animal studies) and boost the ability to learn. And finally, much like childbirth, running a marathon seems to wipe your memory of pain!

So increasingly there is evidence that actually backs up the belief that running is good for us.
I was very interested, earlier this year, to watch “Mind over Marathon”. Ten brave volunteers all with their own emotional challenges – hoping to run the London Marathon. I am impressed to see men and women of all ages and from different backgrounds working together to support each other through this task. Some people have desperately sad stories and it’s easy to empathise and understand how you might end up in the same position. Like Rhian – who lost her baby son and then had to manage the loss of her husband a few days later by suicide. There are those whose culture makes seeking help unacceptable. And those where the “back story” is less obvious. But I am struck by the number of young or old, attractive, apparently vibrant people who are crippled by sadness, emptiness, and fear. And by their courage is facing this down to take part – and deal with Nick Knowles – let alone run a marathon. So good to give mental health issues a human face and definitely worth a watch (if you can still get it on i-player) – even though the London Marathon season has come and gone for this year.

So few people we see here at High-View are involved in regular exercise, be it walking, running, cycling or any other activity or sport. Many are surprised if we suggest it might help as part of their treatment. But it has so many advantages – and these are just some of the things that keep me going out there…………………..

• Friendship – running with a buddy – or with a group – is a chance to put one foot in front of another whilst feeling part of something and connected to others – relationships are what we all need to survive.
• Being outside – and connected to the world we live in – feeling the heat and cold – being dry or soaking wet – nothing better to help you feel alive!
• Watching the turn of the seasons. Snowdrops, bluebells, autumn leaves – even snow!
• Running alone and listening to music – or even a talking book or catching up on “The Archers” – no one can “get at you” when you’re running and sometimes it provides the quiet to indulge the things that you enjoy. I love music of all sorts – but I am not sure when I would listen to it – just listen – hearing every note or every word – if I didn’t run.
• Buying a new running kit!
• Yes! I completely get the brain chemistry – I never regret a run or come home feeling worse than when I set out.
• Although I have only recently begun to see the benefits of meditation – I am struck by how I have probably been benefitting from it for most of my life as – at times when I run – my mind empties and stills and becomes quiet and peaceful (although it may depend on what music I’m listening to!).
• Problem solving and generating new ideas. This may be related to the improved working of my brain. However – as a therapist I have a special interest in EMDR – a therapeutic approach developed initially to help people process trauma. At its simplest it asks people to focus on their traumatic experience whilst the two sides of the brain are stimulated in turn (by eye-movements or tapping their hands etc.) It seems to me that putting one foot in front of the other is a simple form of bi-lateral stimulation and I think it helps me to process what happens in my life.

Clearly, mental health problems cannot be solved by a blog post – but what I hope it might do is get people thinking about what they can do for themselves to make themselves feel better…………… so give it a try………… get active – run, walk, cycle, turn cartwheels, try yoga – do them all and – if possible – talk at the same time. Run with a buddy or a group. The brilliant thing about running is that if you are running too hard to talk you are probably running too hard – especially when you are starting out – so you can make connections with others whilst exercising your body. If you don’t have anyone to run with – or can’t find a group – try the Run Together website. Many groups and running clubs will have a mental health ambassador – a volunteer who is committed to helping people start running, get back into running, or to keep running – especially if they are experiencing mental health difficulties.
And I will have a think about my next running challenge.