This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year's theme is connecting with nature. Our excellent fitness editor, Tina Chantrey, delves into why running outdoors is so key to mental health, and how running can help us achieve all of the five ways to wellbeing
How do you approach your mental wellbeing? You may think of options like therapy or medication when considering ways to manage mental health issues, but research shows that ecotherapy – activities that take place in nature – can positively impact mental health too.
“The University of Essex carried out research for Mind, which found that 94 per cent of people who took part in outdoor exercise activities said that they had benefited their mental health,” says Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity for Mind. “Ecotherapy can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression, and being in a relaxing outside space can provide a distraction from negative or intrusive thoughts, and allow us to switch off from everyday pressures and relieve stress.”
Physical activity lifts your mood through the release of endorphins – the runner’s high – and helps you to manage stress better by balancing cortisol levels. “People who are physically active also sleep better, a core component in protecting your mental health,” adds Hayley. “Exercise can also reduce your risk of developing mental health problems, with one study finding that physical activity reduces your risk of depression by up to 30 per cent.
Running for wellbeing
It’s said there are five ways to wellbeing. These are: connect, take notice, be active, learn and give. And the good news is, running does all five at once.
Our running tribes are powerful and provide that vital social connection that helps our wellbeing thrive; a solo run is a very different thing to a run with a buddy or a group.
Running is also the most beautiful, and easiest way to be present in the moment. Listening to your footfalls, feeling the breeze on your skin, watching birds fly over you, crunching over the leaves in autumn: all enable a form of moving meditation. Worries about the past and the future can melt away as you savour your place in the environment you’re running through.
There’s no doubt that running can provide endless opportunities to learn, too. From mastering your first 5K, and moving on to new goals such as a 10K, a half, marathon, an ultra or a triathlon, it gives us the opportunity to learn skills and disciplines and discover our own strengths (and inner strength).
Giving is also something that tends to make people happy, and we’re not just talking about Christmas. Volunteering at parkrun, giving up your time to lead a group or coach, scheduling in a run with a buddy or other club member when they need a listening ear, or waiting to cheer in the last runners in a race is good for your mental health.
Helping others makes you happy (as well as them), and us runners are a generous bunch of enthusiastic and evangelistic humans who want to get involved whenever we can, and share the love so much we sometimes just can’t stop talking about it (or posting on Facebook, Instagram and Strava).