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Featured in the Sunday Independent
Running regularly will make you better able to cope with the challenges that life can throw at you, writes Katharine Teeling
If someone asked you “why is running good for you?” you would probably reply it is good for your health. Which is correct. But when most people talk about the health benefits of running they are referring to the physical health benefits. But running is so much more than that. Running also offers many mental health benefits, something less widely known or discussed as the physical health benefits.
Most people know the physical health benefits as they have been talked about at length for years. Running helps you to get fit, tone up, lose weight, lower the risk of diabetes and support your immune system to name but a few. All hugely beneficial aspects of running and are indeed why running is such a hugely popular form of exercise. But the less discussed mental health benefits are equally important.
So many people in today’s world suffer from mental health conditions. Some are born with them. Some are hereditary. Others develop over time caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. While running can by no means cure or relieve all mental health conditions, there are some mental health areas such as stress, anxiety and depression that running can help to alleviate or act as a preventative to the issue turning in to a condition.
Relieve/Lower Stress and Anxiety: Stress and anxiety have become huge mental health issues across all ages. Running is a great way to relieve stress. Running releases endorphins, your body’s own way of reducing stress. This, in turn, can help to reduce anxiety levels and feel calmer. As a natural antidepressant, it helps your body to deal with stress and anxiety better. Sometimes as you step out the front door to start your run, you begin to feel the stress and anxiety levels subside. And better yet, by going for a run you are less likely to resort to a less healthy and misconceived stress and anxiety reliever such as alcohol or cigarettes.
Improve Mood: Running helps your body synthesise mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, a naturally produced mood enhancing feel-good chemical. So whether you have had a bad day at the office or at home, again just stepping out the front door can get you on the road to improving your mood and feeling more positive. And by the time you get home, you most likely won’t need or want that chocolate treat or glass of wine that you thought would make you feel better.
Increased Confidence: Whether you are a first-time runner or seasoned one embarking on a new running challenge, your confidence grows with each extra running step. Each step is evidence of your growing resilience and determination. These can then transcend into other areas of your personal life, as you realise that you can achieve more than you thought you could. Vital tools in helping to fight depression.
Boost Self-Esteem: When you run, you get fit, which in turn can improve your self-esteem and help you to feel better about yourself. Also as weight loss is often a natural by-product of running, body image confidence improves which can also lead to improved self-esteem.
Clear Your Head: As running is an aerobic exercise, it sends more nourishing blood to the brain, which can help you to think more clearly. It is one of the best ways to clear your head of everyday noise such as phones, PCs, tablets, work, family etc. By eliminating these noises while running, it enables you to think more clearly and improve creativity. Indeed, running is often better than any brain-storming session you will ever have in a meeting room.
Focus on the Task at Hand: When you run, your mind becomes focussed on the task at hand. Turning the next corner. Reaching the top of the hill. Battling the winds head on. It takes determination and strength to overcome these obstacles which can be carried in to other areas of your life – and make you better able to cope with the challenges that life can throw at you.
Encourage Social Interaction: In recent years running has become a much more social form of exercise. There are running groups, clubs, networks etc, both impromptu and otherwise throughout Ireland. And there are hundreds of races of varying distances all-year round. So it has become a great way to meet new people, especially if you are new to an area. Being part of a group can help combat loneliness and provide great social support for people with depression. They are also a great way to build social confidence to help reduce anxiety in other more socially demanding situations.
Sunshine Vitamin D: Sunshine vitamin D is a nutrient that can help to reduce the chances of experiencing depressive symptoms. Getting enough Vitamin D and fresh air is something that so many people struggle with. Running gives you both of these all-year round, even during the winter months.
Age-Related Cognitive Decline: Running boosts the chemicals in the brain that supports and prevents degeneration of the part of the brain that is used for memory and learning. So while it won’t cure neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, it may help to reduce the risk of age-related memory loss.
Despite being a long-standing runner myself, I am constantly learning new things about running. From my own personal experiences and through those of others in our Coast Road Runners running courses. Time and again people from our courses tell me that they feel so much better now that they run. Both physically and mentally. Physically they may have got fit, lost weight and toned up. Mentally, running has helped some of them to deal with some of life’s worst challenges like bereavement, divorce, life-threatening illnesses and operations. And more recently, it has helped many get through the current global pandemic. It has also helped them to deal with less sinister yet difficult everyday life challenges, such as returning to work post-maternity leave, changing careers, having a baby, juggling work and family. The latter of which went to a whole new level with working from home and home schooling. Any of these situations could have led to various mental health conditions. They chose running to deal with the situation, thereby preserving their mental health.
From a personal perspective, my late father suffered from depression. Anxiety, too, in his later years. Depression and anxiety can be hereditary, but neither I, nor my five sisters, have either. We are all very active physically. Between us we either run, cycle, go to the gym or play tennis regularly. I believe this may have helped to build and strengthen both our physical and mental health. To act as a preventative to break what may have become a mental health pattern being passed down through our family.
So with 2021 finally behind us and 2022 just underway, let running be your gateway to improve your mental and physical health. Let 2022 be the year to invest in minding yourself both mentally and physically.
Katharine Teeling, running coach and owner of Coast Road Runners, Learn to Run 0-5km & Beyond.