I think most people’s mental health has taken a knock over the last year. But for me, and many others, running has been a huge help.
I’ll be open with you from the start here – I don’t have mental health problems. But I do have mental health. We all do. And it’s important to look after that.
I am a big worrier though. I wake up most days worrying about stupid things. I often feel overwhelmed by them. Then I go running and that feeling just goes away. Sometimes I am able to process my worries while running. Other times, running just helps me forget them. But I feel totally different when I get home than I did before I went out the door.
I genuinely feel that if I didn’t run I could have mental health problems.
I run for many reasons, including fitness and competition, but most of all I do it for my own wellbeing. (Which is why I’ve managed to keep it going over the last year, even without any races to train for.) When I went freelance seven years ago, I made a promise to myself. I would run or walk before work every day. Running or walking is a part of my working day. It is non-negotiable and I don’t ever skip it. If I’m particularly busy with work, I just get up earlier rather rather than miss my run or walk.
After I’ve been running, I feel good for several hours. There’s really no other way to get that feeling – the runner’s high, which is endorphins released as you push your body.
So why is running good for mental health? There are many reasons and it’s worth reading more widely on them. But here are just a few of them…
Running can control stress and increase your ability to deal with mental tension.
Running sends more nourishing blood to the brain, which can help you think more clearly. Many runners choose to set themselves challenges – completing a 5k, 10k, half marathon or marathon or trying to improve their time. Working towards these challenges can also make you better able to deal with challenges in other parts of your life.
The chemicals released during and after running can help people experiencing anxiety feel calmer. It is a healthy way of dealing with life when it gets tough – I know it helped me when my dad was seriously ill with Covid-19.
We’ve heard recently that vitamin D can reduce the risk of getting Covid and decrease the severity if you do get ill. But it also reduces your likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. Vitamin D comes from sun, so getting outside and running on a sunny day is a great boost. (To be honest, getting outside is good for you mentally even when it isn’t sunny.)
For some people (sadly not me), running can improve sleep, which in turn can improve mental health.
There is even some evidence that running can reduce mental decline after the age of 45 – delaying or reducing your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. Starting running any time between the ages of 25 and 45 can make a difference in this way.
Running can be a great boost to your self-esteem – whether that is through achieving a certain time or distance or just getting yourself out of the door on a cold and wet day. Feeling proud of your achievements can help build your self-esteem in other areas of your life too.
It seems that I got something right with my commitment to running before work – because it can help productivity. Running or some form of exercise before work or at lunchtime can increase motivation and energy at work.
Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of parkrun and I’m really missing it during lockdown. But did you know that the connection between mental health and running is so strong that many GP practices around the country actually prescribe parkrun as a way of reducing the need for lifelong medications? Around 17% of the UK’s GP practices are signed up for the initiative, called parkrun practice, to improve the health of the nation.
If you think running could be the way to improve your own mental health, put your trainers on and give it a go! Many people now like to start off with the Couch25k app, which helps you to build up gradually from walking to running.
Spoiler alert – you may not enjoy it and get that runner’s high the first time or the second. But, believe me, stick with it and you will feel like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders…