In the Blog
Sports series: Running for My (Mental) Health
by T. Sunday
I’m sure everyone knows that there is a link between exercise and happiness for some people - there are countless studies out there that show that many of us are happier when we’re active. One night, after weeks of being completely depressed, I stayed up late reading several such papers. The following day, in a haze of rare optimism, I created a new life plan.* It involves therapy, yoga, medication, and running. I had hoped this plan would not only help me improve my mental health, but also allow me to accurately trace my healing progress. I figured that if I tracked everything, including my running time and my moods, on a day by day basis, it would at least give me some concept of how effective these new “treatments” are, and what kind of “dosages” I need to accomplish my goal; basically I have been thinking of running as another kind of anti-depressant.
And, so it began. I chose a basic 5k plan to start; I’m not training for any races, so I thought it would be an easy enough introduction. I decided to use the Color Run’s training plan, which begins the trainee with 8 sets of running for one minute and walking for 90 seconds. The first couple of days were extremely easy for me (to put this into perspective, I have no physical disabilities, and I have been moderately active all my life). I wanted to throw myself into this plan with great vigor, however it mostly felt like I had to drag myself onto the running path, or treadmill, and then begrudgingly complete my workout. I was still quite depressed, but after getting into a routine, I noticed some minor overall mood improvements; they were sporadic, and didn’t always last, but were certainly better than no change at all.
By the time I reached week 4 and I was at 4 sets of 6 minutes of running and 2 minutes of walking, I noticed that it was difficult for me - like, really, really difficult - my body wasn’t tired whatsoever, but I found myself gasping for air. Since I’ve never had a problem with physical activity before, I figured it would get easier with practice, and despite my discomfort, I stuck with the running schedule. Later, I had an appointment with my doctor for something unrelated, and she noticed what she thought could be a heart murmur. I went for a 3d echocardiogram, and learned that I have a minor heart problem, which - surprise, surprise - can make running really, really difficult. Overexertion can be fatal for people with this problem. So, yippee! Good thing I found out before I got to 30 minutes run, no walking! The good news is that most physically able people with this problem can become reasonably comfortable with running, it just takes them a little longer than it would if their hearts didn’t have blood going in all kinds of wrong directions. I need to pay a little more attention to what my body is telling me, but running is actually very good for people with the type of murmur that I have.
I’m glad to understand the reason that I’m not a naturally awesome runner, but it can be somewhat discouraging because I’ve always had certain expectations about my physical capabilities. I also feel judged by others who aren’t aware of my issue; because I’m a thin person, some people expect that I should be able to run faster, and farther. From an outsider’s perspective, I shouldn’t look and feel like I’m about to collapse after a mere 5 minutes.
Like many people I know, I’ve had body image issues for as long as I can remember, and having my appearance scrutinized by others isn’t new to me. It’s a source of anxiety, and running in public can be a bit of a trigger whether it’s rational or not and regardless of whether the judgment I feel is real or perceived. On the other hand though, it’s a form of exposure therapy, and I’m hopeful that the more I do it, the more positive coping tools I will develop. Still, I think everyone can stand to remind themselves that there is very little you can actually tell about a person just by looking at them, and physical ability is just one of those mysteries.
Mental illness is another one of those pesky unknowns; you wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I struggle with chronic depression, anxiety, an incredibly frustrating OCD spectrum disorder, and complicated grief disorder. It’s a very exciting mix! I won’t go into too much detail here, but those few months back, when I established this new life plan, I was at a point where I was sad all the time, completely unmotivated to do anything, and struggling with passive suicidal thoughts. I was in a super unhealthy place, and I’m glad that I was able to recognize it, and try to make a change.
It’s been about four months now and, while I’ve been able to closely track my physical progress, my mental progress has been a bit tougher to figure out. I can tell you that when I’m not active at all, I am constantly down, but when I’m active, and dedicated to my running schedule, my mental health reminds me of the weather reports from the summer when I lived in the mountain town of Canmore, Alberta. The motto there is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” You may be able to loosely predict what the day will be like, but pack your umbrella anyway, because you just never know when a storm will hit!
That’s what understanding my moods is like now. It’s much more positive than it was before, and definitely more favorable, but I still find myself overwhelmed with sadness from time to time. Before, I could usually predict my mood - every morning I’d wake up and be all “well, whadda ya know? I’m in a shitty mood!” - but now, it’s anyone’s guess. Everything is not always sunshine and rainbows, but I have gotten my motivation to work and live back. I’m also pretty stoked to be able to say that my OCD is mostly under control! This is really huge for me since I’ve been afflicted by this since I was 6 years old and never saw any stable recovery until recently. My grief symptoms have also started to normalize so, needless to say, the life plan has proven to be totally worth it!
It’s not always easy, but I’m trying really hard to stick with it, and run at least 3-5k 4-5 times a week. This is what seems to be working for me, so it’s what I’m planning to stick to for now. It’s true that physical activity on its own, without the other life plan elements, probably wouldn’t be as much of a game-changer for me. However, in my experience, when physical activity is removed from the bundle, it all tends to fall apart. I’ve started to think of it as the glue that holds my life plan together. At this point, running is something that I wouldn’t want to do without.
*I created my “life plan” with the help of a primary care provider (physican), a psychologist, and my partner.
T. Sunday is a photographer, and writer. She is interested in lots of issues, including, but not limited to, mental health awareness and suicide prevention, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and environmental protection. She is from Toronto, but currently lives in Chicago.