Marathon runners

Why exercise helps with mental health

What impact does exercise have on mental health? As thousands of runners take to the streets of London this weekend for the 2017 Marathon, many will be raising awareness of and money for its charity of the year, Heads Together, a campaign led by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.

The royal trio have been speaking about removing the stigma around mental health issues this week, and feature in the BBC documentary Mind Over Marathon which follows 10 unlikely runners with mental health issues who are running the London Marathon.

It's known that mental and physical health are closely linked, and as the runners take their final steps in preparation for the Marathon, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness at The Open University, Karen Howells, gives her expert insight into why exercise can help with your mental health, and how to get started. She says:

Mental health isn't just the absence of illness

“We know exercise is good for us; physically it can prevent diseases such as diabetes and keep us at a healthy weight.  It can also have a positive impact on our mental health, particularly affecting stress, anxiety and depression. However, mental health is not just the absence of a mental illness, it is also how we feel such as our self-esteem, mood, and feelings of belonging – these are all things exercise can boost.

The chemistry of exercise

“The physiological explanation of why exercise can impact on our mental health is that it boosts dopamine and serotonin levels and releases endorphins. Dopamine and serotonin have a positive effect on our attention levels so we feel more engaged as a result; and endorphins can boost our mood.

Social element of running boosts wellbeing

“Particularly with running, there is a social element which can boost our mental wellbeing. For example, with the London Marathon, even those who didn’t get a place are still encouraged through email contact to get involved in running and go out with local groups. If you run with like-minded people, it can enhance your sense of belonging, self-worth and self-esteem. Running in itself is also a distraction and can give people time away from a cycle of negative thoughts that are often characteristic of depression.

Young couple joggingHow to start running

“Although we may all start with the best of intentions, having some structure and setting goals can increase the likelihood that we are going to continue after that first day! If you’re not a runner a good way to start is with something like the Couch to 5K app which gives you a structure and some short term goals.

"Having company is also a good motivator and increases your chances of continuing, starting with someone in the same position can be helpful, as is joining a club. The social support is important early on to ensure people stick with what they are doing, often there are good intentions but these can easily fall away.

Different story at elite level

“There is, however, a flip side to exercising and mental health which is the pressure that elite athletes feel when competing at the top of their game. The stigma attached to poor mental health in society generally is compounded for elite athletes who are expected to be mentally tough.

"Mental health issues challenge elite athletes' identity – competing and their sport is their life and means everything to them and failure to live up to their own expectations and the pressures imposed by themselves and their coaches can be devastating.”

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