There is a running route near my home that I depend on more than anything else in my life.
Amid the hubbub of London life it offers a rare moment of solace in the winter months, when you can cross fewer than ten people along a five kilometre stretch. The constant noise of the city miraculously dissipates, and a sudden calm transitions the day, providing a much-needed barrier between being switched on and switched off.
Behind walking, running has become the most popular exercise on Earth. Record numbers of people now participate in half and full marathons, 10km runs and 5km parkruns at the weekend. Outside organised events the UK contributed some 24.7million runs and 192million km to Strava’s global figures in 2017, with runners around the world clocking up a total distance of 1.1billion km; equivalent to just over 1,400 return trips to the moon.
Yet despite this phenomenal growth, relatively little is spoken about running in terms of its effects on mental health.
Google the benefits of running and you will doubtless be returned with a long list of physical gains. Healthy joints, muscle growth, skin care, bowel health and even the prevention of eye diseases are among the many advantages that running entails. But telling folk that running is good for your physical health is like teaching grandmother to suck eggs, and in a world where there is a frenzy of new and trendy fitness alternatives, it is also getting a little worn.
A recent piece in VICE put the case forward that running is actually a “crappy way to lose fat and an inferior way to boost cardiovascular health”. Strength coach Lee Boyce argued that compound strength exercises such as the squat, deadlift, overhead press, chin-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups work more efficiently at burning calories and boosting metabolism, and as author Nick English found, he could be right.
Several studies have shown that weight training and sprinting are more effective than running at targeting belly fat and creating a good hormonal environment for fat loss, meaning better insulin sensitivity, less of the stress hormone cortisol, and more growth hormone and testosterone. Studies have also shown that shorter sessions of anaerobic training are also just as good for cardiovascular health as long, drawn-out runs and better at maintaining muscle and increasing aerobic fitness.
But as the tone of their language suggests, they are missing a trick. Runs should not be considered to be simply “long and drawn-out” forms of exercise, but effective and healthy releases from the shackles of everyday life. Long runs mean long periods spent away from our phones, from our work emails and from our social media feeds. They mean a break from the noise, a bit of headspace, a time to unwind. And they should be talked about as such.
Earlier this year parkrun made the headlines after GP practices started to prescribe them instead of medication. The initiative, referred to as ‘social prescribing’, was based on research conducted by parkrun UK in 2017 that highlighted the positive impact physical activity and volunteering can have on health and wellbeing, with many GPs saying they have had success with people who suffer from anxiety and depression along with other physical ailments.
It comes on top of a wealth of evidence that shows how running can have a positive impact on your mental health. Cedric Bryant, PhD, coined the term “runner’s high” when he found evidence to support that feelings of psychological well-being are associated with long-duration, rhythmic-type exercise, and numerous studies since have shown that it can help ease anxiety, anger, depression and confidence, as well as promoting better sleep.
So as the New Year gets off to a start why not consider running as a way of getting your mind fit in 2019. It really does work.