Mental Health and Running

This Mental Health Awareness Week, our multimedia designer Sophie Parsons discusses how exercise, in particular running, has helped her to cope with anxiety and stress.

Exercise, for a long time, was something I thought I wasn’t very good at. In comparison to my otherwise teachers pet status at school, I had an apathy of sorts towards sports lessons that led to my later belief that team sports, athletics and pretty much all kinds of physical exertion just weren’t to be a part of my daily life. Fast forward to the present day and exercise, more specifically running, has become integral to maintaining a healthier mental state.

Physical exertion has been long championed for its positive effects on our mental health. So much more than getting sweaty and burning calories, mental health charity Mind suggests that physical activity can help to improve sleep quality, release endorphins, manage stress, anxiety and intrusive thoughts, improve self-esteem – the list goes on. 

Journalist Bella Mackie’s book Jog On documents her progress from a 3-minute slow-crawling jog to regular 10k runs around London. At the beginning of the book, we meet Mackie as a novice runner, someone in the depths of a worsening state of mental health and heartbreak before progressing to a place where running helps her to better understand her own mental health. In the chapter ‘Why Do We Run’, Bella describes how the modern world means being sedentary and inside of our own heads most of the time but at times when we encounter ruptures in this comfortable life, it can suddenly not feel like enough anymore.

Although I do not suffer with a severe mental health illness, I do have a tendency to overthink, stress and become anxiously caught up in my own thoughts. According to Anxiety UK, 1 in 10 young people experience a mental health disorder, with anxiety and depression being the most common mental health difficulties. Like most students, my anxiety first surfaced with the stresses of university and my final year was spent in a slight turmoil of a pressure to succeed and a consequent anxiety of failing. These feelings were completely self-induced, and to most people my grades would have indicated nothing worth stressing over; none-the-less, the anxiety was there.

It is at this time that I began a rather rigorous training programme for a half marathon, waking early and heading out on a run before then spending the day in the studio working on my degree. Perhaps it was the feeling of accomplishment that would come from managing to progress with my distance and stamina on these runs, or maybe it was simply that I had managed to get out of my head and move my body, but these runs offered a moment of silence from the anxious tightness that had begun to sit in my chest. 

At one of the most stressful times I have experienced in my life so far, running offered a gateway to softening my anxiety and it is for that reason that I have made an effort to keep it up in the years that have followed. Mental health is very much a matter of peaks and troughs, with the unexplainable days where everything seems a little out of sync taking a little more work than usual. It is on those days, the days where I don’t really want to have a shower much less pull on my trainers and run, that I know I need it most. I return home, distracted by forty-five minutes spent simply moving and listening to a podcast.

Recently, on an episode of the Deliciously Ella podcast writer Elizabeth Day eloquently described the power of exercise on mental health as the process of getting out of your head and into your body. Running has never been about time or speed for me (it is really much more of a plod anyway) but there is something about the slow, rhythmic nature of running that enables my brain to quieten its usual chatter. Sometimes, my perfectionist tendencies come out when I have to stop to catch my breath, seeing that momentary walk as a failure – though I am getting better at changing how I perceive the purpose of my runs and removing this pressure of numbers and finish lines.

Running is not for everybody, in fact for many it is incomprehensibly mundane to want to simply run for a duration of time, with very little purpose. The beauty of physical activity is that there is a multitude of options to choose from; spin, yoga, boxing, swimming, a simple walk. It is not so much about what you are doing but rather the reward that comes from taking time for yourself where your only priority is movement. Finding a sense of calm when your body is being anything but may seem oxymoronic, with a spin class feeling anything but calming, but like the great Elle Woods said, “exercise gives you endorphins and endorphins make you happy.”

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