Many people in India and around the world have increasingly been taking to the streets and running to improve their cardiovascular health, weight-loss or to build muscle. Only when I started running myself — about a year ago — did I discover how significantly running can impact one’s mental health and state of mind, given my own personal experience. Running has helped me stabilise my moods, improve the quality of my sleep and most of all made me feel strong despite bouts of anxiety I used to experience.
A recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, found that people who completed regular exercise had 1.5 fewer 'bad days' a month than non-exercisers. It was found that team sports, cycling and aerobic exercise such as running and jogging had the greatest positive impact on mental health.
From using it to cope with the death of a loved one to combating depression and anxiety, here are some runners who stick to the habit of running because of its therapeutic effects:
As the primary support person for his wife who had depression, before she passed away, Hemant Patil, found solace and strength in running. A retired structural engineer professor aged 62, he is one of the oldest members of Bombay Running Crew and has successfully completed sixteen half marathons and five 10 km runs till date.
"Running gets my day started with a positive feeling. It never allows any negativity to crop up, once we undergo a running session with all the run buddies. Finally, it gives me sound sleep, the moment I hit the bed after 10:00 pm. Running infuses a feeling, that for every problem, there is a solution,” he explains. Running has become an integral part of Hemant’s routine and he thoroughly enjoys being an active part of the runner community and meeting people across all walks of life.
Krithika Ganesan, a 25-year-old development sector professional, took up running full fledged in Mumbai with Bombay Running Crew through their 10x10 Challenge (running 10 km for 10 days straight). She signed up for this with the intention of getting some mental space as she had recently experienced emotional abuse at her work place. As a result of this, Kritika used to feel low in self confidence and was not able to stand up for herself. Her experience of the 10x10 challenge turned things around for her. She now confidently states that “ The need to finish a target and push myself made me feel that I too am capable to do something when I put my mind to it. This gave me the confidence to stand up against those who took advantage of me mentally and emotionally. I literally went back and broke those shackles that I was bound in by confronting the people. Running purely boosts my mind, my mood and my confidence.”
Sanjay Pahuja, a 32-year-old investment banker and ultra-marathon runner has been fighting depression and anger issues since 2011 due to some happenings in his personal life. He recalls being irritable and how his rage hampered things at his work-place too. Sanjay started his running journey in 2017 with Bombay Running Crew and there has been no looking back for him since then.
Another recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.
“Running is therapy for me. It brings me peace of mind and has helped me fight my anger issues. I find that it frees my mind and helps me take better decisions in both my personal and professional life.” You will often find Sanjay in picturesque destinations amidst nature doing trail runs which he calls his “ME time”. He is now gearing up for Solang Ultra 60K race that will take place in October.
Ved Agarwal, a 33-year-old brand management professional by day and an avid traveller engages in ‘intent-based running’ as a medium to ease the anxiety and uneasiness he experiences from time to time. He recalls, “
Intent based running to me was an accidental discovery. While I would run on and off even earlier, the real unlock - i.e the power of mind over body and achieving therapeutic meditativeness happened when I once ran 5km without realising.” Unlike many long distance runners who prefer running with a crew, Ved prefers running alone. “ Running for me is an intimate and personal experience which I would like to share with only those I find a connection with,” shares Ved. For those who experience anxiety, it can sometimes get challenging to get out of bed let alone going for a run. Ved shares his coping strategy - “ I just show up and let my emotions take a back seat till I start the run. Ten minutes down - I am already congratulating myself for having showed up.” Ved has already completed one half marathon till date and is targeting completing at least two more every year in different destinations around the world. Dr Aditya G Nair, one of Mumbai’s renowned psychiatrists reaffirms the experiences runners have and the impact on their mind. He says, “Running increases the blood circulation to the brain and improves its metabolism which is seen in effect with reduction of symptoms of anxiety and depression such as low self esteem , social withdrawal among others.”
Dr Nair shares that aerobic exercises such as running is an important element of lifestyle management associated with the treatment of depression and anxiety and maintaining illness free states.
“Individuals who incorporate these changes show drastic changes in their approach towards their illness , improvement in cognition, levels of functionality & resilience thereby improving their quality of life.”
Despite knowing the benefits, it can be daunting for many, especially those who are experiencing mental health challenges to take that first step and start running. Joining a running community, or finding a buddy to run and who holds you accountable will definitely help. What is special about running is that you can do it just about anywhere at your own pace and time. Any run is better than no run when it comes to short-term mood improvement or long-term help with depression and anxiety.
Rachana Iyer heads corporate social responsibility at one of India’s leading banks, works extensively on mental health awareness and is a runner with Bombay Running Crew. Front Runners is a series of articles that take a deep look at the world of running and runners.