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Born to Run – The Exercise Imperative


September 13, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ leaders & followers


crossing the finish, Boston Marathon

A dozen years ago I was unable to run 50 feet continuously.  Chronic depression and social anxiety had a destructive influence on my life.  I started to run. I joined a beginner running group, and slowly built up fitness over a period of months, in the company of like-minded new friends.  After several months, I was able to run 10 kilometers at a slow pace without stopping, and I noticed a dramatic improvement in the quality of my life, and a pronounced lessening of my depression and social anxiety.  My sleep quality improved steadily, and I required less sleep as time went by and my fitness improved.  It was also during this period that I slowly weaned myself off of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, under the close supervision of my doctor. Both my mental and physical health continued to improve over the next several years, as I slowly trained for a marathon. My mental and physical strength peaked in the time between when I qualified for the Boston marathon, and actually ran this prestigious race.

 

George Blackwood crossing the finish line at the Boston Marathon,.

We were born to move. Our bodies were made to work. For the last two million years or more, we’ve fulfilled that biological imperative in order to eat, access shelter, and procreate:  to survive.

In turn, we’ve not only survived on this planet – we’ve thrived. Our population has grown, and we’ve spread to the far corners of the globe. Nobody would dispute that this evolutionary success has come about as a direct result of hard work. On the other hand, nobody would dispute that it was in our best interest to conserve energy wherever possible. At a minimum, we had to take in at least as much energy as we expended in order to survive.

However, in general during the last few hundred years (and since the 1950-60’s in particular), we haven’t had to expend as much energy to survive (at least in the developed world) as we had to during our earlier existence. Projected into the future, this trend looks set to continue, with the advent of and evolution of new technologies, including automation, AI, and additional labor-saving devices. This progress has come at a cost to our physical and mental health, especially in the last few decades. Medical research has previously concluded that exercise and physical activity are not only protective from future depression (Schuch et al., 2016) but has demonstrated that regular challenging exercise is essential, helping us physically as well as mentally in both alleviating and managing the symptoms of current anxiety and depression (Sanchis-Gomar et al, 2015; Carek et al, 2011), and in helping prevent a relapse of symptoms (Mayo Clinic, Vickers-Douglas, 2017).

This is especially important for those 30% or more of depressed people who suffer from “refractory” or “atypical” depression, for whom traditional anti-depressant medication has no beneficial effect (Oaklander, 2017).

That anxiety and depression can be significantly reduced by getting out and working our bodies as evolution intended is good news – but weekend warriors, be aware.  Research indicates that this exercise needs to be slowly built up over time so that it is eventually performed at a relatively intense level, for at least a half hour at a time, several days a week, over a period of months, in order to produce its full beneficial effect (but most will notice substantial improvements in mood after the first initial weeks).  Fortunately, unlike our ancestors, we have the relative luxury of choosing how we go about working our bodies.  We can join a beginner running group and slowly build up our fitness over a period of months, in the company of the like-minded new friends you’ll make along the way, or we could learn to cross-country ski, or start a swim training program, or go out on increasingly longer and regular vigorous hikes with friends, etc. Given that the last thing that many depressed people want to do is to move, it is essential that you give yourself every opportunity to overcome that initial inertia; join a learn to run or other run clinic, run easy with a trusted friend, until such time as you build up your running momentum, which will come with practice; it gets progressively easier to get out the longer you enjoy it. No harm in a tasty coffee reward afterwards either!

Of course you should consult with a physician to ensure that you are able to start such a program of physical activity, and, very important: if your relative fitness level is low, start SLOWLY and with easy effort.  Do not overdo it – enjoy yourself!  Many overdo the exercise initially (men especially), become discouraged at their suffering, and give up. So build up slowly; you have time, and plenty of it. Again, enjoy yourself and ease into your new training regimen. You will be immediately rewarded for your efforts.  In my case, my anxiety immediately began to abate, and the depression slowly moderated, and I slept much better.

And if I can go from sedentary to the Boston Marathon, most anyone at all can do it. There is zero special about my abilities. A dedicated and patient effort, good training friends, a few beers and meals of fish and chips along the way, and voila, you’re running a 5km, a 10 km, a half- or full marathon and have probably left your anxiety and depression largely behind you. One further note: I have several running friends who confided in me about their own struggles with depression and anxiety. All started running as “newbies” around the same time I did (we met at a local running clinic, and at graduate school); and all agree that running and other types of endurance activity (i.e. swimming/triathlon) have been central to their overcoming depression and anxiety, and being able to successfully manage their lives.

One last crucial point; many people make plans to start some type of program of physical activity, but get distracted by life’s challenges and never get going. The key to starting the activity of your choice is to gift yourself this time. You deserve it, you’ve certainly earned the right to be content, so ensure you make the time to follow through. I promise you that you will be happy with the results of your efforts.

 

References:

  •  Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Sui X, Rosenbaum S, Firth J, Richards J, Ward PB, Stubbs B (2016). Are lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness associated with incident depression? A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Preventive Medicine, Volume 93, Issue null, Pages 159-165 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27765659)
  • Sanchis-Gomar F, Quilis CP, Lucia A (2015). Antidepressant Effects of Exercise: A Role for the Adiponectin-PGC-1α-kynurenine Triad? Journal of cellular physiology, Volume 230, Issue 10, Pages 2328-2329
  • Carek PJ, Laibstain SE, Carek SM. (2011) Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, Volume 41(1), pages 15-28.
  • (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21495519)
  • Vickers-Dougles K (The Mayo Clinic)(2017) Exercise eases symptoms of anxiety and depression. (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495)
  • Oaklander, M (2017) New Hope for Depression. Time (http://time.com/4876098/new-hope-for-depression/)

 

Disclaimer:  The story above describes the mental health experience of several individuals.  No one thing works for all people, or at all times. If your mental health is being challenged, reach out to your health care professional, call the mental health help line at (709) 737-4668, or visit your nearest emergency room.

 

 

 

George Blackwood is a photographer, ecologist, geologist and environmental scientist with a profound connection to nature. He enjoys endurance running and mixes his passion for sport with a wide-ranging interest in politics, media, and culture. He currently lives in St. John’s where he shares space with two feline companions.