It’s estimated that one in six people have experienced a mental-health problem in the past seven days, whether that’s depression, anxiety, OCD, an eating disorder or PTSD and we also know — and research has proved this — that aerobic exercise can stimulate serotonin and endorphins, but what is it about running specifically that makes it so good for beating the blues?
“It’s called the ‘runner’s high’ — we don’t hear the term ‘cyclist’s high’ or ‘rower’s high’,” says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. “This could be because running is an extension of a movement humans learn naturally as babies. It’s also rhythmic, so possibly there’s a meditative quality to it.”
Celebrities including Ellie Goulding and Lena Dunham have recently spoken about their love of running and its ability to combat panic attacks, stress and anxiety, and it’s no coincidence that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Heads Together campaign culminates in the London Marathon, with more than 700 runners taking on the 26.2-mile course in aid of the mental-health charity.
If you’re running for your brain rather than your bum, it’s not as simple as hitting the treadmill. “Research from the University of Essex found that 90 per cent of people found their sense of wellbeing increased after being active outdoors,” says Hayley Jarvis, community programme manager for sport at Mind. “So get outside, and go during daylight hours if you can so that the sunlight triggers even more serotonin release. Don’t go for a run last thing at night as this can interrupt sleep patterns.”
It’s also important not to go full Paula Radcliffe on your first outing. “To get the maximum mood-improving benefits of running you’d ideally be doing it three times a week and build up to 45 minutes each time,” says Jarvis. “But if you push yourself too fast or too far you’ll feel exhausted and like a failure, and you might not want to do it again. We recommend an app such as Couch to 5k, which builds up your confidence with small, achievable goals that will improve your self-esteem.”
Aside from the happy hormone rush, which kicks in at different points for different people, running has other uplifting benefits, including lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels, improving sleep patterns and increasing self-control. “There are also the positive feelings people get from the physical changes,” says Lane. “You might feel fitter, stronger and more skillful, not to mention losing weight.”
While many people just like to pound out their problems on the pavement alone, enlisting a running buddy can motivate you and even intensify the therapeutic benefits. “It’s known as motion therapy or dynamic running therapy,” explains Lane. “The studies show that when people are moving they are more likely to disclose thoughts and feelings. It’s partly the brain chemicals being stimulated by exercise, and possibly because running side-by-side with no eye contact makes it easier to share.”
But clearly for people in the depths of a mental-health crisis, suggesting they just get up and run a 10k isn’t helpful. “We know that having a mental- health problem actually makes it harder for people to get active,” says Jarvis. “A lack of motivation, a fear of being judged and the side-effects of medication such as weight gain can all make it difficult to get started. Our Get Up and Go groups are a safe, friendly, supportive environment for when people are ready.” And even if sprinting is making you feel super-happy again, don’t bin the antidepressants just yet. “People should never come off medication without talking to a GP first,” Jarvis advises.
Running can even be used as a preventative measure to build up your resilience to mental- health issues. Studies have shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing depression by 30 per cent.