This January, I took part in the R.E.D. January Challenge for Mind, the Mental Health Charity.  R.E.D. is a handy acronym for Run Every Day and the idea is that, for the month of January, you do exactly that, to raise awareness and support for mental health, by promoting the positive power exercise can have on our minds and wellbeing (and hopefully obtain a little bit of sponsorship in the process to help further this fantastic cause).

My Story

About 18 months ago, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.  It had taken me a long time to see my GP (I’d booked and cancelled several appointments before I actually plucked up the courage to go along).  Really, I had known for a while that I was beyond the point where things were going to improve on their own and yet, I still felt like I was failing by asking for help.  On the outside, it probably seemed to most people that I was absolutely fine.  And I could be just “fine”, because I needed to be.  For my work.  For my children.  For other people, mostly.  But on the inside I just felt a bit empty.  It was those bleak feelings of emptiness that were the hardest, as they also came with a large helping of guilt.  Why was I finding this so hard? I am so glad that I went to see my doctor that day, it was a huge relief to finally have things out in the open and to make the first step towards getting better.  The treatment process for me involved a course of antidepressant medication and talking therapy, which I found enormously helpful and got me to a point where I started to see the good things in life again. I also regained the resilience to deal with the everyday knocks that life throws at us without feeling that everything was a catastrophe. I’ve been a runner for almost 20 years (!), so when I heard about the R.E.D. Challenge I knew immediately that I wanted to take part.

It’s not about fixing you

Mental health, in my view, is not black and white.  I don’t see myself as having “recovered” from depression and anxiety, rather I have learnt how to manage my wellbeing so that, hopefully, I don’t slip back to that dark place again.  Making time for running regularly as part of this challenge has proved a great way of keeping myself well.  I’ve reflected a lot on my experiences this month as part of the R.E.D. Challenge and wanted to share my thoughts with you as to how I think regular exercise can really improve mental health and wellbeing.

Switching off

I find my runs are somewhere I can switch off mentally from the myriad demands of being a parent and running a small business on the side.  For this month, I’ve taken extra care not to choose any taxing routes or attempted to run at a pre-ordained speed, rather I’ve gone with what I can fit in on a particular day and how my body feels.  This has meant that I have actually enjoyed my running on the whole a lot more than I have than when I’ve been following a training programme for a race.  In a world where we are so often on the go, rushing from one thing to the next and looped in to the rest of the world via our phones this has been a really lovely escape.

Support from others

It never ceases to amaze me how supportive the running community is.  Whether this is a smile and a hello from another runner as you pass one another on the trail, chatting to other friends about their runs or the fantastic online communities such as Run Mummy Run and the RED January runners on Facebook and Instagram, however fast you are running and for whatever distance, I’ve only ever found the running community to be really encouraging and accepting and great at celebrating the achievements of others or offering advice when it has been asked for.  Feeling a sense of belonging and connection is so important to mental wellbeing, as is the sense of a shared common purpose.  When I was feeling at my lowest, knowing that there were others out there having a similar experience to me was hugely comforting and gave me the push to carry on.  This challenge has really opened up a dialogue with people about mental health and I feel humbled that people have felt able to share their own experiences of depression and anxiety with me, which is exactly what we should be doing in my view – I wish more of us would talk as openly about our mental health as we do about our physical health.

Let’s take it outside

Personally, I would much rather exercise outdoors than in a gym (something which I am always encouraging my clients to do!).  At this time of year, with the short days and often rubbish weather, it’s more challenging to spend time outdoors, but this challenge has forced me to be outside even more than usual, which has meant I’ve noticed the little things which show we’re edging towards spring.  The first snowdrops and the increasing sounds of the birds have given me a little boost this past week and there’s nothing quite like a little winter sunshine to make you feel alive – this has been a really big mood booster for me.

Mood boosting

Running has lifted my mood, plain and simple.  There have been mornings where I have been grumpy, snapped at my children, felt as though my head might explode with all the jobs and information I’ve been trying to retain. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I’ve headed out for my run, just aiming to “get through” and found the tension lifting within the first 5 minutes.   By the time I returned, my mood had entirely altered.  Not only this, but I’ve done so much running this past month and witnessed how it has the power to change my mood, that I feel I’m able to more readily accept the low moods as being temporary, something which I know will be improved by running, rather than ruminating on them and worrying that I am going to keep on feeling like this, which has in the past created a spiral of anxiety and negative thinking.

What next?

So, will I keep on running every day now that my challenge is complete? The answer to this is no (although I am hoping to head out for a very short run tomorrow!).  My body is craving a rest day for my working muscles to recover and I’ve no doubt that my physical running performance will improve once I start taking some time off.  My husband has also been doing this challenge and with us both juggling work and our two small children, there has definitely been a logistical challenge about fitting our respective runs in that I won’t miss!  But I do intend to run more frequently and enjoy my runs more, without a set mileage or agenda, just to run and feel good as a result.

I also hope to draw on this experience with my personal training clients.  My mission for them this year is to help them to make the connection between moving their bodies and how good this can make them feel.  I’m talking less here about feeling virtuous or maybe even relieved because you’ve ticked a workout off the list (which, let’s face it, we all do from time to time, I certainly do!).  No, I’m talking about finding a form of exercise that you genuinely enjoy and that makes you feel great, whether that’s running, walking, dancing, lifting weights, doing spin classes or playing tennis.  It’s about celebrating what your body can do, not what it looks like and seeing exercise not as a means to change our physical body, but to transform the way we think and feel.

If you’d like to donate on my Just Giving page:

For support and information regarding mental health:

Mind – The Mental Health Charity:

The Samaritans:

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