Running and mental health

As someone who has dealt with depression over the years, there’s a lot to be said for the benefits of exercise. Exercising starts a biological chain reaction that results in many health benefits, such as protecting against heart disease and diabetes, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure. High-intensity exercise releases endorphins, the body's feel-good chemicals, resulting in the ‘runner's high’ that runners frequently speak of.

For most people, there’s a lot of genuine value to be found in sustained, low-intensity exercise done over a period of time. It stimulates the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The resulting improved brain function makes you feel better. For people who suffer through depression, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus region of the brain (which helps regulate mood) is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.

Growing up, I had a lot of obstacles to overcome. I felt I was being treated, addressed, and punished (when warranted) by my parents differently to the way my sisters were. Faced with bullying at school, I turned to a very primitive form of redemption among my teen peers. Sport. I could run. Not run in the sense that Forrest Gump could run, but run nevertheless.

I needed new ladder upon which I could compete on. I set my sights on middle distance running, with the ambition of achieving the championship in both the 1500 and 3000 metre events.

Training for the events bred mental toughness in me. And there’s the benefits – like the moment you arrive at that endorphin high all runners know; the feeling when you feel that you could run forever; that you are light, fast and in a beautiful rhythm.

It doesn’t come easy – the hard part is the preparation that’s required. You need to be physically capable to run those distances, as well as being psychologically capable to conquer the doubts in your mind.

A sense of accomplishment that stems from achievement in sport is something, especially growing up in a sports-mad city like Melbourne, in a sports-mad country like Australia. You have a social or cultural leg-up in many parts of Australia if you have some level of athletic accomplishment under your belt. That’s a good thing, in certain ways. But there’s more to it than that. As I’ve previously said, having your kids involved in sports is going to benefit them in numerous ways, just so long as the emphasis placed on achievement comes at the expense of the degree of enjoyment they’ll experience taking part.

The other thing about exercise, sports, games, general activity, is that there are significant documented benefits to be had from the pursuits. Exercise is the world’s cheapest, most widely available, most effective, yet least utilised anti-depressant.

One study (of which there have been countless) by Ioannis Morres of the University of Thessaly in Greece found the impact of aerobic exercise was strong at relatively small levels. This study found a significantly large overall antidepressant effect, at an average of 45 minutes of aerobic exercise at moderate intensity, three times per week, for fewer than 10 weeks. Furthermore, it was found that exercise brought about a large, or moderate-to-large improvement in depression in a wide range of delivery formats through equipment-based or equipment-free modalities, inside or outside a hospital, outdoors or indoors, in groups or individually, and in cohorts with outpatients or inpatients, and with different depressive symptom severity.

Which is excellent to know. Go to any gym and there will doubtlessly be slogans on the walls about ‘motivation’ and ‘determination’, and that once those are maintained, habits are formed. Where exercise is involved, there are going to be many benefits.

It’s not that exercise alone can cure all that supposedly ails you. But it is a key factor. My own experience with running afforded me the time to think, to focus, to set and achieve goals, and I benefitted from my commitment to this by winning the races I set out to win, which elevated my social status at the school I was attending. It would take longer for me to figure out the deeper motivations behind ‘running’ specifically, concerning from where (or who) I was running, where I was running to, and what the process signified in my greater journey.

My emotional issues, the psychological problems that informed my depression were complicated – as are everyone’s. Running wasn’t a cure all, but it certainly did me more favours than inflicted personal costs.

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