Running: Great for the head, brutal on the knees:

Loz Holmes

Loz Holmes

I have never been a fan of running. My body feels like it’s about to collapse after a mile, and attempting to run around a football pitch for five aside the morning after a hangover-inducing Wednesday night out doesn’t bear thinking about. But everything I’ve read mentions the benefits of cardiovascular exercise for anxiety and depression, and plenty of research shows that even going for a short run can have significant mental health benefits. In the past, I have been focused on my physical health goals, namely to lose fat and build muscle. It often felt like running was an ineffective and too challenging way for me to do this, with weight training and HIIT seeming like the more obvious option. But with the HeadFirst mentality in mind, focusing on my mental rather than physical health goals, running seemed like a better option.

So I decided to start running. My exceptional lack of fitness meant that I had to start at the very beginning. I decided to download the app, Couch to 5km. Essentially, the app is a 9-week program that ends in a 5km run. The program starts easily, beginning with a brisk 5-minute warm-up walk followed by alternating short periods of running and walking for 20 minutes. Following this, the runs get more challenging week by week, leading into longer runs for 20-30 minutes, culminating in three 5km runs.

For a runner, or any person with some vague degree of cardiovascular fitness, couch to 5km seems way too easy and a waste of time. But for me, it proved a lifeline for my anxiety. I can’t say I greatly enjoyed every run and some days I struggled to finish, but the feeling I gained following each run was worth it. After every run, whether it was a short jog and walk combination or a longer run, I felt happier and more comfortable in conversations, and less worried that I might have an anxiety attack.

So why does running prove to be such an for anxiety and depression?

Research has found that sedentary behavior is linked to an increased risk of anxiety, and showed that that the more exercise you do the less anxious you are. A meta-analysis showed that exercise did reduce levels of anxiety in self-reported anxiety sufferers. In this study they found exercise to be more effective than the other forms of anxiety-reducing treatment, such as group therapy, pharmacotherapy, and stress management education (1). Mikkelsen’s research has provided an explanation for inflammatory, physiological, and psychological mechanisms to improve anxiety levels.

Neurotransmitters are another physiological mechanism that can help explain the benefits of exercise for anxiety. When performing aerobic exercise, it has been shown that blood serotonin levels were increased which correlates to lower levels of depression and anxiety (2). Exercise such as running is thought to act in a similar way to some forms of antidepressants (SSRIs), blocking serotonin absorption to make it more abundant in the brain. From personal experience, I can definitely say I feel like going for a short run or walk in the morning works in a similar way to the antidepressants I have previously taken. I personally believe that they can act as an alternative when coming off antidepressants and I would encourage people to consider exercise for this purpose.

It’s also important to note that it’s not about how far you run, or about the intensity of running, it’s just about trying to do something a few times a week. Because of my anxiety, I often feel that people around me are judging my running technique, or I’m going too slowly. Once I realized that I could run at any pace, I began to enjoy running a lot more, occasionally stopping to walk for a little bit, taking in my surroundings, and being mindful of how I’m feeling. If you’re new to exercise, and the idea of going for a run horrifies you in the same way that it used to for me, don’t feel there’s anything wrong with simply going for a walk. It can often be as effective as a run for your mental health, clearing your head, getting some fresh air, and giving you some exposure to sunlight, topics we plan to discuss further in the future.

For a lot of people, doing exercise is hard, and it can be so easy to just put it off until tomorrow. But the positive effects of exercise on one’s mental health, and specifically anxiety, is evident. From personal experience I can say going for a walk, run or doing any form of exercise during the day makes me feel better about myself and a lot less anxious. So, whether it’s a short walk around the block or a ten-mile run, I would encourage anyone to try and do some form of exercise every day, it really does have a huge impact on your mental health. Big love, Loz Xxx

Tunes that sum up this blog:

1. Running-Jamie XX Ft. Gill Scott Heron: Earlier release from Jamie XX, mixed with the vocals of the legendary American poet Gill Scott Heron. The melodies and space which define The XX are evident, but its prominent beat makes it a strong running tune.

2. Till I Collapse-Eminem: Old school classic from slim shady himself, has got me through a fair few runs that I had serious doubts about finishing. Definitely a motivator.