The New Year is a time for reconnecting with mind and body. As runners, we know that we’ll generally always feel better after a run, but I wanted to delve deeper into mental health and running. I was fortunate to talk to Dr Lynne Drummond, Psychiatrist and Head of South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust’s Specialist Obsessive-Compulsive and Body Dysmorphic Disorder Services – Lynne is also a seasoned runner and running coach.
Can you define good mental health for us?
Good mental health isn’t about being happy all the time, it is about experiencing a range of emotions and accepting them for what they are. It is about being able to live the life you’d like to, feeling and feeling valued by your family, friends and society.
Why is running good for our mental health?
It’s a combination of factors. Top of the list is that you can always ‘win’ with running, as you are only measuring against yourself, your own PB’s. Individual sports can be greater at boosting self-esteem than team sports as you set your own goal, put the work in and you are entirely responsible for the results. Although your goals may be individual, many people’s experience of running, mine included, is that it is a really social activity where lasting friendships are built, this is really positive for mental health.
Most runners choose to get outdoors running in natural environments and in daylight. Studies show that running outdoors can boost self-esteem and that green and blue (water) spaces are more calming for runners than gyms. Plus at this time of year it protects against Seasonal Affected Disorder by boosting exposure to natural light.
There is a study showing that some exposure to stress via running can help manage anxiety. The hypothesis being that if increased heart rate, breathlessness and sweating are experienced in a ‘safe’ environment this can help us better deal with crises when they do occur. This rings true with my experience of working with clients who have panic attacks. As part of their therapy we simulate them to mildly hyperventilate in order to rehearse what they’d do in a real incidence.
What exactly happens in the brain when we run?
In the short term – during and after runs for up to a few hours – mood-boosting, anxiety-calming neurotransmitters, like endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and endocannabinoids (similar to the active ingredient in marijuana) are released into our brain. This is known as the ‘runner’s high’ although it isn’t solely reserved for runners, other forms of exercise gain this feeling too.
Exercise pumps blood to the brain, which will make you think more clearly. If you are mindful whilst you are running – thinking about your breathing, how your body feels – then you can be meditative when running. This is important to allow the brain to switch off and process. I have experienced this personally. After my father died, I had struggled for days to write his obituary. I went out on a long run, didn’t think about it once, but on coming home sat down and wrote the tribute that I had wanted to give him.
In the longer term – changes to the brain are made, such as the size of the hippocampus increasing, (the part of the brain responsible for memory) which has been proven to protect against dementia. Plus new connections are made between neurons which reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Would you use running to help a client with mental health issues?
Yes there are studies that demonstrate the therapeutic effectiveness of exercise in the treatment of mild depression and increasingly medical professionals are starting to use exercise, sometimes in combination with medication and therapy, for those with less serious mental health issues. There is a group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists who are looking at how to use exercise in more serious mental health cases (Asperger’s, Schizophrenia), but there is yet to be a body of evidence for this.
As I personally place so much value on exercise, I have organised 5km runs at the hospital (St George’s) where patients take part. It is incredible to see the benefits that individuals experience as a result of this event – a sense of achievement, social interaction and positive feedback from society.
If we are using exercise as a treatment for mental health we need to ensure that patients are supported to start being active and critically to keep it going a number of times a week. I see GP surgeries as important community centres from where people can be supported to use exercise as a way to strengthen their mental health.
How much is too much? Can running become the next disorder?
Yes we know that too much exercise, like many things, can be problematic. It is very difficult to say how much that is from one person to the next and it depends on the intensity of the exercise.
For young female athletes over-exercising and disordered eating has developed into a worrying condition called – Female Athlete Triad – which results in delayed periods and putting themselves at risk of issues with bone density. It isn’t just a concern for women though and we are seeing that men suffer from disordered eating and body dysmorphia too. Over exercising can be a way for those with eating disorders to mask the symptoms and this can lead to dangerous weight loss.
For the best mental health we should live balanced lives where we have a variety of interests and social interactions. In part running can give us this, but it shouldn’t be the only thing.
If you are worried about your dependence on exercise or that of a loved one speak to your GP for further advice or a referral to a counsellor.
Or if you’d like more practical information and support on exercise and mental health please see the Royal College of Psychiatrists website