Running Down Depression

The benefits of exercise to our mental health have become even more apparent throughout the pandemic. Running is an accessible and easy way to improve your physical and mental wellbeing, which is vital to Britain's recovery from the affect of COVID-19.
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It is widely recognised that running has both physical and psychological benefits with the effects of 2 lockdowns causing isolation, depression, and health anxiety it is more important than ever to take care of your body and mind. so why not lace up your trainers and go for a run to experience the perks for yourself. 
 
So how does running lead to better mental health?

The answer is rooted in the body's release of serotonin and endorphins, chemicals that are dispersed within the brain to lift your mood. Regular running at a moderate or high intensity does this and reduces anxiety as your head will be cleared of negative thoughts as you focus on putting one foot in front of another.

Running reduces anxiety and panic attacks because as you begin, the body adapts to deeper breathing and a faster pulse rate which has the added benefit of improving your cardiovascular fitness.

A study by Asics found that 82% of runners say that running has helped to clear their minds during the pandemic. Additionally, going for a run will enhance the ability to learn and sharpen memory. Also, regular running defends the brain from the adverse effects of ageing and improves sleep quality.

Improved sleep can be explained by the fact that 78% of those who run state that it helps them to feel more in control, which has been particularly important during the uncertainty of frequently changing health regulations and restrictions on our lives.

The distress which was rife during the pandemic, amplified by social isolation, has made society more prone to periods of low mood and depressive symptoms. As many have tragically lost loved ones or suffered from COVID themselves the pandemic has taken a toll on the nation’s mental wellness.

Running and exercise in general can help to ameliorate this impact as it helps to buffer the brain’s response to emotional and physical stress. A rise in anxiety and depression that has occurred as a result of the pandemic has been attributed to people’s fear of catching the illness which could last long after the virus has subsided.

The economic struggles that have subsumed the UK since the announcement of the first lockdown have placed pressure and worry among many employees as they feared being made redundant. The level of economic activity fell by 15.7% between the first and second quarter of last year causing many to have more spare time.

This circumstance that we have all found ourselves in over the last 18 months has 2 implications: more time to take up exercise but equally more time to worry about health and employment.

More than 42% of people surveyed in the US reported experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety which tells us categorically that both the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns have harmed mental health.

Therefore it is vital for the population to understand that they can use their increased free time to do running or other forms of exercise to improve their mental health.

The mood-lifting, anxiety-reducing effect of running can be largely attributed to the release of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream, which are biochemicals similar to cannabis but naturally produced in the body.

Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can cross the blood-brain barrier so that these neuromodulators promote short-term psycho-active effects like mood improvement and less anxiety.
 
An ideal, accessible way to start and maintain weekly runs is by going to your local parkrun. This is a free 5km timed run every Saturday for all running abilities. There is no need to worry if you’ve just started as it is a friendly, inclusive, and pressure-free event.

With many parkruns taking place across the UK there is no need to take long journies and every parkrun is home to an encouraging community of runners and volunteers.

For this reason, it is so much more than just a run – it gives you the opportunity to meet new like-minded people and have a sense of purpose with something to aim for each week. At many of the UK’s parkruns there are hundreds of runners attending of all levels of stamina and endurance, so you won’t feel inferior if you take it at a slower pace.

In addition, with so many volunteers to encourage you as you are running it is easy to keep motivation high and push your fitness to the next level. Within the park-run community, there are some incredibly inspiring stories of people with serious illnesses who use running to preserve their body’s functions.

For example, there was a man with Parkinson's disease, who ran in order to maintain his muscle strength although his neurological systems were degenerating. It is cases like these that show us that amazing things really are possible when you set your mind to them and should give you the inspiration you need to start running. Although progress will be gradual you will soon start to notice improvements in your endurance.
 
In order to start running, you will need to seek motivation. Apart from the mental health benefits, you should view running as a way to lower your risk of serious health problems like strokes. Music is a great way to motivate yourself before and while you are running.

Having your headphones in while running will allow you to run to the tempo of your playlist and will distract your mind from feelings of fatigue. It is also important to connect with other runners so that you can support each other and follow each other’s progress.

Parkrun is great for this as there are so many people who participate, many of whom are also looking to improve their mental health. Apps such as strava will allow you to track your running routes and easily follow what your friends have been doing. Another incentive to take up running is that it is very accessible because you do not need an expensive kit.

All you will need is a pair of trainers and leggings so the cost will be kept low. To experience the mental benefits of running you do not need to become competitive – just because you start does not mean that you must enter a race. This enables you to take it at your own pace and set yourself small achievable goals like a PB at parkrun.

Couch to 5k is a great app to get you started. It is a free app that you can download on your phone and takes you through an 8-week plan which involves gradually working towards running for 30 minutes. You can choose your coach who will take you through 3 interval sessions per week, starting with a very small amount of running before a rest period.

running to reduce symptoms of depression
image source: medicalnewstoday
I am studying Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. I am a keen runner and am interested in politics and the Middle East.

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