Feet first: Why running is good for our mental health

Running has been shown to enhance our mood, reduce stress and anxiety and helps to improve our sleep quality

Jessie Barr: “Research has found that engaging in just 20 minutes of aerobic exercises, such as running, can improve mood and reduce levels of anxiety for several hours post-exercise,” Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Jessie Barr: “Research has found that engaging in just 20 minutes of aerobic exercises, such as running, can improve mood and reduce levels of anxiety for several hours post-exercise,” Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

 

We all know exercise is good for our physical health, but it seems many runners are also hitting tracks, paths and roads to improve their mindset.

A recent study showed 65 per cent of regular runners are motivated to go for a run to improve their mental health, while 53 per cent go running to simply be out in the fresh air and in nature.

“Running is the perfect way to decompress and let off some steam, providing a welcome distraction from daily hassles,” says Jessie Barr, Olympian and performance psychologist with the Sport Ireland Institute. “Research has found that engaging in just 20 minutes of aerobic exercises, such as running, can improve mood and reduce levels of anxiety for several hours post-exercise.”

The 28-year-old, who is originally from Dunmore East in Waterford, has been a keen athlete for most of her life and started training for the 400-metre hurdles when she was 17 before heading to college in Limerick to study psychology and sociology. Having graduated in 2011, she had planned to go straight into doing a master’s degree, but her sporting career took off and she went down an altogether different route – representing her country at European and World Championships and then the Olympics in 2012 in London.

“As long as I can remember, I have been involved in sport in some shape or form,” says Barr, who has two younger siblings, Becky and Thomas (also a Olympian). “My parents were eager to have us experience as many sports as possible and to make our own decisions about what ones we would like to stick with long-term, as they recognised the range of benefits sport had for us physically and even socially.

“My motivation for getting started was very much for the enjoyment and it was that [sense of] fun combined with great friends which kept me in sport. I was never motivated to perform or to win medals – and if that happened it was very much a bonus. I just loved the challenge of trying new disciplines and events and trying to improve my own skill level.”

As she got older, personal bests, qualification standards and winning races became more of a motivating factor, but she says that deep down it was the love of sport and how it made her feel that kept her going. “Running has made me feel probably every emotion under the sun and often to the extreme,” she admits.

‘Pure joy’

“When I was younger, it was just pure joy. As I moved into training for the 400-metre hurdles, it became physically painful, but I still loved it. There is no better feeling than finishing a really tough training session, with my legs like lead and my lungs burning, knowing I had left my all on the track. And as any athlete will know, the elation of running a personal best time and maybe even winning a race is difficult to put into words.

“But, of course, there were also an awful lot of negative feelings as I spent a lot of my career injured and with that came frustration, sadness, anger and an awful lot of tears. When so much of my identity was wrapped up in being the runner or the athlete, it felt like some of my identity was taken away when I was injured.

“However, despite how awful running often made me feel over the years, I didn’t stop, because when I stripped away all of the pressure and expectations I had placed on myself, I remembered why I started in the first place and how good it made me feel when it was going well and I was able to train every day pain-free.”

On a personal level, Barr is very well-placed to discuss the benefits of exercise on mental health but also from a professional stance in her role as a performance psychologist. “Running is one of the purest and simplest forms of exercise and the range of benefits are astounding,” she says. “Physically, it improves your cardiovascular fitness and health. It increases lung capacity, helps control weight or enhance weight-loss and it increases bone density. And it can also prevent high blood pressure and strengthen the immune system.

“However, it’s perhaps even more beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing, as research consistently finds that aerobic exercise, particularly running, can help to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by reducing stress levels, enhancing our mood and helping to improve our sleep quality. Some studies have found that as little as 20 minutes running can reduce anxiety and improve mood for several hours afterwards, while running regularly can help improve self-esteem and confidence when we start to see improvements in fitness levels, stamina and personal best times.”

On Sunday, July 28th, a festival designed for families to spend an active and entertaining day is planned for Santry Demesne in Dublin. The Irish Life Health Festival of Running is organised by Athletics Ireland, and includes a Family Mile and a 3km Trail Run in Santry Park before the National Track and Field Championships in Morton Stadium.

Many people talk about running (or even fast walking) as a means of “clearing the head” and Barr says it is a form of exercise which everyone can benefit from. “I understand that there is a lot of fear around running and a perception that a certain level of fitness is required to start running,” she says. “But if people feel that running numerous kilometres at a time is too daunting, or they simply are not fit enough, they should build up slowly by adding some short bursts of jogging into a walk, gradually increasing the distance or speed of the jog, until eventually there is less walking and more jogging.

“Then next time, pick a tree or lamppost and jog to that before walking to the next marker to recover and then jog again. Over time, people will be able to jog a little bit further or a little faster and over time confidence will grow.”

Running partner

As well as adding short, sharp bursts of jogging into our walks, the seasoned athlete says we should also try to find a running partner, as this will be motivating. “My running partner is actually my dog Lily as I found that running with another person didn’t work out as I was almost physically incapable of running and talking without passing out,” she laughs. “I don’t have that with Lily as conversation is somewhat one-sided but I do have to bring her out for her daily walk. A good playlist is essential but I also find that a good running route, or a few different routes, can also help with motivation.”

And for those who can’t run due to injury or fitness level, the Waterford woman says the most important factor is getting out into the fresh air and nature.

“If you are looking to achieve the mental-health benefits of running, but you can’t run, then any kind of exercise which you enjoy and that you are physically capable of doing will provide you with similar benefits in terms of the release of endorphins, improvements in mood and self-esteem,” she says. “Getting outdoors into nature, for a walk or on a bike, will have the added mood-enhancing benefits of being in nature, as research has shown that half of those who run regularly are motivated to go for a run to be out in the fresh air and in nature – because just five minutes of running, or other exercise, in a green space can positively affect your self-esteem and your mood.”

Running tips

David Matthews, coaching expert from Athletics Ireland and former Olympian, has some tips for anyone wanting to get stuck into running. “There’s no doubt we are right in the middle of a running boom in Ireland as there isn’t a parish or village across the country that haven’t had a 5km fundraiser,” he says. “We are fast becoming a nation of movers and joggers, with over 300,000 adults running on a regular basis. It is one of the cheapest forms of exercise as all you need is a pair of runners and some open space.”

Here are a few tips:

– First and foremost, find an Athletics Ireland club or running group as they all have qualified, experienced coaches who will be able to help.

– Make a date with yourself – such as a certain time or day of the week – and stick to it.

– Set a target such as a race or try something like the Irish Life Health Festival of Running.

– Don’t run too fast too soon; make sure to warm up beforehand.

– Training must have a mix of easy (where you can comfortably have a conversation) and not-so-easy.

– Follow a routine such as steady, easy, hard, easy.

– Enjoy yourself.

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