Is running really good for mental health - or is it all talk?
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Ok so I may be a bit biased. It’s the only sport I’ve ever really been good at, I was brought up in a family where running was as much part of life as brushing your teeth, and I’ve seen the benefits first hand for myself and those around me. The physical benefits are obvious - it can help with weight loss, will improve cardio fitness, increase stamina and encourage muscle tone.
But why is it so good for our mental wellbeing?
The facts are now clear - exercise helps to improve mental health and can support a mentally healthy lifestyle. When we start exercising, our bodies release ‘happy hormones’ - dopamine, seratonin and endorphins - which give us that positive feeling we can experience after taking part in physical activity, also known as ‘the runner’s high’. But this can come from any form of physical activity (despite running
hi-jacking the phraseology!). So why do I promote the activity of running in particular, as my favoured version of hormone-inducing feel-good movement?
It’s good to run. And in the wise words of Maureen Lipman - it’s good to talk. In the last few years, I have found that the two have become unintentionally inter-connected.
When you run with someone else, you can experience a release of an additional hormone called oxytocin (aka the love hormone). And this, combined with forward movement, and the fact that you are looking forward and not into each other’s eyes, can result in runners experiencing a sensation of trust, resulting in them talking more, sharing, and confiding.
Those parents amongst us may have experienced the frustration of generating a conversation with a teenage child, especially when confronting an awkward or challenging topic. Ask them a question over the dinner table, or in any other ‘face-to-face’ situation and you may be blessed with silence, a grunt, or a one-word answer at best. But go for a drive in the car, with both parties staring out of the windscreen, and suddenly conversation isn’t as difficult. You may not receive a verbal war and peace, but you may get something more than the dinner table grunt.
The fact that runners talk and share to the extent that they do came as a shock to me when I first started coaching. Initially I felt flattered that they chose to confide in me, but soon realised it wasn’t about me but instead was about what was happening inside their heads when they were running.
One of the reasons that I decided to become a Mental Health Champion with England Athletics was because I regularly found myself on the receiving end of other runners’ musings, dilemmas and sometimes ‘unburdenings’. Totally unprompted, and often in the middle of a coached session, I would find that runners began talking about their personal lives and occasionally I would find myself literally being the shoulder to cry on. These same people wouldn’t confide in me in the same way in any other situation, but when we started running, the floodgates would often open. I needed to know how to respond appropriately, so became a Mental Health Champion and signed our club up to the #RunAndTalk programme. Whilst the role does not turn me into a counsellor, or involve any formal qualifications, it does provide me with basic training on mental health generally and gives me the tools with which to signpost individuals to various external organisations when further assistance may be required. This might sound like all my runs end in tears, and obviously that’s not the case. They do however nearly always result in runners feeling more positive, achieving clarity of thought, or simply enjoying the run and the company of the other runners.
As a club we host #RunAndTalk events twice a year and encourage runners to talk about mental health while running/jogging/walking. The club is on a database of UKA affiliated and Run Together groups to whom external organisations can make referrals, should a runner with mental health issues wish to take up running. We aim to be a friendly, non-intimidating club, using running to break down the barriers and stigma relating to mental health.
We know that exercise is good for our bodies, but now we know it’s good for our minds too. When running, jogging or walking with a friend, we might just find that it’s easier to talk, and if we can talk about what’s going on inside our heads, it’s a step (or a run) in the right direction.
More information about becoming a Mental Health Champion and #RunAndTalk can be found on the England Athletics website https://www.englandathletics.org/athletics-and-running/our-programmes/runandtalk/