Running and Mental Health: From a Psychology Lecturer

Running and Mental Health

We asked a Psychology lecturer, practicing clinical psychologist and keen runner to explain to use the benefits of mental health for runners!

Running, whether it is for personal enjoyment, competitiveness or managing stress is a great habit to form. I am currently at my 18-mile stage of training for the Southampton half marathon and Belfast full marathon (a week apart). Beginning to run was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was not that into sport when I was younger (e.g. played football with friends but nothing more) and regret that it took me to nearly 30 to take up running. I believe that if I had running in my life at an earlier age, I would have felt much more able to deal with my emotions and the stress of everyday life along with sleeping better and better concentration. 

Theory

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a helpful framework to help us understand the link between running and feeling more stress anxious free. CBT suggests that there is a link between our thoughts, feelings, Running, whether it is for personal enjoyment, competitiveness or managing stress is a great habit to form. I am currently at my 18-mile stage of training for the Southampton half marathon and Belfast full marathon (a week apart). Beginning to run was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was not that into sport when I was younger (e.g. played football with friends etc.) and regret that it took me to nearly 30 to take up running. I believe that if I had running in my life at an earlier age, I would have felt much more able to deal with my emotions and the stress of everyday life along with sleeping better and better concentration.behaviour and our physical body. This is why when we feel stressed our body reacts in a range of ways e.g. tense muscles, headaches, nausea. Certain behaviours (e.g. avoidance) can make our feelings much worse and keep us feeling this way. By deliberately adopting positive behaviours (particularly if it is tackling a sedentary lifestyle), it can have a significant impact on mood and physiological responses. This is part of the justification for the use of behavioural activation in treating low mood and depression. Running is such an effective tool as it helps individuals refocus and not use rumination or worry processes and makes us face the outside world and grounds us in it.

Evidence of running reducing stress and alleviating poor mental health issues

The research evidence strongly supports the use of running to alleviate stress and promote positive psychological wellbeing. De Moor, Beem, Stubbe, Boomsma, & De Geus (2006) highlighted in a large European sample that there is a negative association between exercise and psychological distress meaning that more exercise was related to lower levels of distress. The physiological changes include improved blood flow, reduced blood pressure and reduction of cortisol along with improved sleep and concentrating better. Physical activity is also shown to help manage state and trait anxiety (Schlicht, 2007).

Personal reasons started & continue to run.

Prior to starting lecturing at Solent University, I did not exercise frequently and was almost 15 stone at one point whilst finishing my PhD. Moving to Southampton and beginning my career as a lecturer was a stressful endeavour which could be quite overwhelming at times. I had recognised previously that when I was highly stressed or anxious that my muscles in my body would get very tense and find it hard to concentrate. However, I had begun by walking and running short distances (2 or 3 miles) and gradually built this up. I noticed that when I had completed runs that for a few days that tensions and feeling of stress was much less difficult to manage than when I wasn’t running. A colleague who really loved running (ultra-marathons etc) challenged me to complete a local 10k run (Stubbington) and I thought “Why not?”. I had not completed any 5km races in my life but accepted this challenge. I trained for it and completed it with only a few minor complaints. I was very proud of myself and beginning to lose weight helped also.

The same colleague then seeing my buoyant attitude challenged me to complete the 2015 ABP Southampton Half marathon. I had never run this distance before but was determined to do it and began training more and attending park runs. Throughout this period, I recognised the link between feeling more competent with managing my anxiety and stress and being able to run. I managed to complete my first half marathon and tried the full marathon the year after. I have stuck to half marathon distances since. I truly believe that if I can do it, anybody can do it. You simply need to be determined, have a growth mindset (realise it will take time) and ensure you get decent shoes to prevent shin splints!

This year is my first attempt to go for another full marathon (Belfast). Although the training is tough, it has its own rewards by keeping me feeling in control of my stress and anxiety levels. I also raise money for various charities including Mind, NSPCC, PIPS (mental health charity in N.Ireland) and Northern Irelands Children’s hospice.

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