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Run your way to better mental health

Image of woman running at sunset
Pixabay | Pexels
Tips & tricks by Lucy O'Neill

One of the most accessible forms of exercise, running is proven to provide various health benefits. Lucy O'Neill looks at how running can aid mental health, and provides her tips for how you can reap its rewards.

Late last year, twenty-thousand people took to the streets of Glasgow to take part in the Great Scottish Run. The races were split into two distances; 10k and 21k (the latter is a half marathon). I took part in the half marathon, my second time running such a distance.

The race began in George square, central Glasgow. The crowds in the pen dazzling in different coloured neon charity tops, tutu skirts and the occasional person dressed as a banana. The nerves were contagious but so was the adrenaline.

I ran the race in support of the NSPCC and the work they do through ChildLine. However, it wasn’t only to raise money for charity that I decided to run a half marathon. The physical and mental benefits of running and training are what pushed me to the start line.

How running helps me

I am by no means an athlete! To me, running is about the experience of putting one foot in front of another and seeing where it will lead. I always considered myself somewhat of a runner; finding time after school or to decompress after submitting a university essay.

Running crept into my life more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic, like it did for so many others. As a key worker and a student, the pandemic and the distance from others left me suffering with panic attacks about the uncertainty of the future. I found running was the only way to, firstly, get out of the house, but secondly, out of my own head. Running in my local area and giving a wave to other runners out and about gave my life the structure it desperately needed, and it was something to look forward to.

How can running benefit you?

Running has great physical benefits, you become stronger and fitter, and it is a great way to reach your desired physical appearance or stay in shape.

In recent years, we’re turning more attention to the added mental health benefits of exercise and running outside, and mental health is generally spoken about much more than before. Even so, the public still appears to be suffering. The mental health charity, Mind, reported that 1 in 5 people have suicidal thoughts at some point in their life. Depression and poor mental health are common, and often we don’t know where to turn to or what to do. Maintaining physical fitness is something that can help.

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The science behind the benefits of running

Running has therapeutic side effects and there is science to back this up. A study from the University of Birmingham investigated the effectiveness of aerobic exercise in treating depression. It was the first study of its kind, as it involved working with those who suffered with major depressive episodes, and who were recruited through mental health services.

The study found that frequent aerobic exercise had similar effects as anti-depressant medication. In addition to this, running has few negative side effects (remember to stretch) whereas anti-depressants have for many, such as nausea, weight gain and insomnia.

According to Hopkins Medicine, after a run, the body releases biochemical substances from the endocannabinoid system. These substances are similar to cannabis which explains the sense of calm you’ll feel after a run. Not only does it help with the effects of poor mental health because running genuinely makes you feel better, but it also improves cognition because you’ll grow new blood vessels which can reduce cognitive decline as we get older. It keeps your heart healthy too, which reduces your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Training and planning to improve your running can also have excellent benefits. Running frequently, and training for a race or trying to beat your own personal records gives you structure and something to strive towards. Runner’s World magazine explains that having short term goals to work towards each day or week can greatly improve our overall wellbeing, by getting stronger physically and mentally.

Tips for taking your first step

Since the pandemic, running has become a habit for me. The training for the half marathon has only solidified this for me.

If you’re reading this because you want to get into running, then here are some tips I have for doing soand , importantly, actually enjoying it:

  • Lay your running clothes and shoes out the night before a run – this will help motivate you in the morning. When you are cold and tired and don’t want to get out of bed, seeing them on your bedside table will mean the trouble of trying to get dressed in the morning that little bit easier.

  • Download a running app –Nike Run Club is great because you can do guided runs where a coach will motivate you and give handy tips in-between your songs.

  • When you are out running, just remember that by doing so makes youa runner – and you should be proud of that.

It may seem daunting to tie up your shoelaces and head out the door for your first run when life is feeling tough.However, the euphoric feeling of running for ten minutes straight or beating your fastest mile, or even signing up for your first race is worth chasing. Run for your current and future self.


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