​World Mental Health Day: Running From Depression?

Getting up and going for a run isn't fun. Anyone who tells you that is lying; the sort of charlatan who'll tell you saturated fat-free, gluten-free, taste-free cakes are more flavoursome than the real thing and that kale chips really are more satisfying than a big ol' pack of your favourite brand. Lies, lies, lies.

Staying in bed is a lot more fun than getting up, lacing your running shoes and heading out into the big, bad world. Or at least, it is until you're too down to do anything else.

I reckon I started jogging when I was about 16, getting up early in the mornings and going for a 25-minute or so runabout to keep myself fit and healthy and all that jazz. At the time, I figured I would do this every morning for the rest of my life; a little over ambitious. Like my determination to complete Fallout 4, it didn't quite pan out that way.

Back then I couldn't have predicted how big a part depression would play in my life. I was too busy being cool, wearing the latest fashions, kissing girls and telling lots of lies just as I am right now.

I might well have been depressed as a teenager, but couldn't have distinguished it then from the normal negatives that go with being a teenager: alienation, stress, heartbreak, mostly - though not solely - caused by being a Spurs fan in the early noughties [note to teenage Spurs fans: you've no idea how lucky you are].

White Hart Lane
White Hart Lane

White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur's former stadium. Credit: PA Images

I've had a fair few depressive episodes over the years, tempered by therapy and medication, and one thing I've found really useful throughout (when I've not neglected it) is exercise. I've tried all the sports, both for fun and to lift my mood: jogging, weightlifting, football, cycling (I fucking hate cycling), pool, even sumo wrestling. The sumo wrestling one is another lie. The pool involved a lot of alcohol (not recommended) and the last time I played I lost a bet and ended up with this tattoo from seminal Arctic Monkeys album AM.

Arctic Monkeys AM
Arctic Monkeys AM

Again, probably not recommended, though it was an amazing weekend in Sheffield with my mate, Chris.

It goes without saying that exercise is important for everyone, but for depressives it's a vital lifeline, contributing not only to overall good health but also serving as a vital compensatory habit to counteract whatever dopamine, serotonin or other -ine deficit happens to (in part) cause depressives to feel the way they do; better than coffee, booze or any other stimulants available on - or off - the free market.

Different exercises affect people in different ways [Ed: thanks, Captain Obvious] but for me, running has been far and away the best in terms of mental health.

Weights, I find, are ideal not only for channeling aggression but also in creating routine, vital in the self-care and gradual improvement of a depressive's wellbeing. But these days I find it time consuming and difficult to fit in - favouring the quick rush of getting hot, sweaty, out of breath and dirty - and then going for a run. Giggidy.

While anaerobic exercise is great, I found over time that having reached a certain level, it was harder to push myself further. Moreover, relying on gym equipment to be free gave me a good excuse not to work as hard as I could when it wasn't - if you've ever been to a London gym, this is often - and ultimately not really getting a strenuous workout. That's obviously just a personal standpoint, and others would make the time to ensure they do all the exercises they set out to and more. I'm just a bit lazy.

Weight lifting
Weight lifting

Weight lifting - a difficult but noble cause. Credit: PA Images

I also love football, taking part in a Seven-a-Side kickabout on as many Mondays as I can. Like any team sport (except cricket, which is shit - in my eyes anyway), football is a great way of satisfying a competitive streak. On the converse, with feelings of guilt and shame a mainstay of my life - another common theme for depressives - team sports come with downsides; the feeling of humiliation when I scuff a shot (often); great shame if I'm responsible for the opposite team scoring a goal (relatively often); a feeling of inadequacy when I can't keep up with faster, fitter players (always).

For this reason, I prefer going for a run; it's just me, a bit of Mumford and Sons high-octane, edgy, energetic music, the great outdoors, and every other prick in London who's had the same idea.

So how exactly does getting out and about really impact on our mental health? A 2017 study in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease (a follow-up to a widely published 2014 report) found that runners on average lived three years longer than non-runners. Even with unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking and drinking taken into account, there was a 25-40 percent reduction in premature mortality. Other forms of exercise also had benefits, though the two-footed tango came out Tommy trumps overall.

Of course, running isn't the only way to exercise and look after your mental health, but for me it's ideal, getting me hot and sweaty outdoors in a legal way, filling me with energy and motivation. Another recent study cited by Business Insider and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggests any exercise that raises the heartbeat and has you moving (and sweating) for a sustained period provides noticeable effects on the brain, the grey area of your body responsible for thoughts good and bad. The study focused on 34,000 Norwegians over 11 years, with participants reporting their exercise habits and the effects they had on their feelings of depression and anxiety.

For me, this may explain why weight lifting stopped having the desired effect, as I'd slipped into lazy routines, thinking I'd done my bit for my body when deep down I knew I'd coasted.

Bowl of Kale
Bowl of Kale

Kale - Looks quite nice, actually. Credit: Creative Commons

But with running, I've no choice but to keep going at a steady, uncomfortable pace - listening to my music, feeling the injection of whatever it is I know will make me feel good (or better) when the horrendous experience of exercise is over and done with. And that, at the very least, is something worth getting up for.

Better than kale chips, at least.


'U OK M8?' is an initiative from LADbible in partnership with a range of mental health charities which features a series of films and stories to raise awareness of mental health.

Explore more here and don't suffer in silence. Reach out. It's the brave thing to do.

MIND: 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans: 116 123.

CALM: Outside London 0808 802 5858, inside London 0800 58 58 58.

Mental Health Foundation

Words: Ronan O'Shea

Featured Image Credit: E'Lisa Campbell (right image)

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