Exercise, mental health & balance

By December 13, 2016Exercise

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“It is estimated that one quarter of the population will suffer from some kind of mental health issue each year, with depression effecting nearly a fifth of UK adults. Many studies have proven that regular exercise can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. A recent study by University College London found that exercising three times a week could lower the risk of depression by 16%. Factors included its ability to distract a person from stress and the production of endorphins after exercise” – Women’s running UK

I’ve joined forces with my good friend Jo on this post who is an incredible runner and all round mega babe. We met in real life for the first time last month and had a great day of running together and eating lots of cake. You can reach Joanna via her Instagram page, go and say hello!

Alice’s story

I remember the day I first decided to go out for a run. I headed out to a cycle path by my house, old school trainers on my feet that hadn’t seen the light of day since year 11 and adamantly decided “today is the day I run”. I lasted 30 seconds before I had to stop, my face resembled a tomato, I had a stitch and I scowled as other runners sped past me like gazelles. Despite this, I couldn’t stop smiling. Not because I’m crazy (arguable) but because something amazing had happened. During those 30 seconds, for the first time in a long, long time, my mind was quiet. I could’t remember the last time I hadn’t had a million thoughts and scenarios rushing around my head and it felt so good. From there, I was hooked. Running for me was not about reaching a certain distance or speed but a means of me escaping for a while. I decided to use the Couch to 5k app as a way of keeping myself motivated and worked my way through the 9 week schedule. They said I’d be able to run 3 miles without stopping by the end and I didn’t believe them at all. I was the girl who had nosebleeds at sports day, whose sporting highlight was winning the egg and spoon race at the age of 5 and who forged notes to get out of PE (sorry Mum). 

But, I stuck with it. I judged my improvement with how many lamp posts I could run to on the cycle path before I had to stop and by the end of the 9 weeks I felt so unbelievably proud of what I’d achieved. I decided to run the Race for Life that year to mark my progression and to raise money for Cancer research, after caring for my Mum through breast cancer in my teens I felt this was an apt way to celebrate. I did the race with two friends (one dressed as a whoopee cushion) and I couldn’t believe how incredible running in this situation made me feel. The cheers of the crowd, the group mentality of runners and the feeling I got when I crossed that finish line. It took me 37 minutes and I was over the moon.

This year I decided to fundraise for Bristol Mind and ran two half marathons and three 10ks in my efforts to raise enough money to finance the training of a new member of their crisis team. The Bath Half marathon was my first real race of the year and it was the day after my Birthday. It was the best race I have ever done. The weather was great, crowds of people lined the route, bands were playing at each mile marker and some friends from home had come up to surprise me. I almost fainted when I saw them at the half way point, but luckily I didn’t and kept on going! I couldn’t believe I crossed the finish line at 1:54 and being met by my family and friends was the best feeling in the world. I really enjoyed running the Bristol and Plymouth 10ks (with over 10 minutes shaved off my first ever 5k time) and the Bristol half marathon too but Bath was definitely my highlight. I can’t help but feel immense pride when I think back to the girl who ran on the cycle path that evening. The progression in my fitness is one thing but the real thing that keeps me getting outside and pounding the pavements is the way it makes me feel.

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Jo’s story

For me, a ‘runner’ was something I never thought I would be. Runners were like Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey: inspirational but not attainable. I was never sporty at school, much happier to spend time with my head in a book and it wasn’t until I graduated that I realised that not exercising at all was pretty unhealthy.

I joined the gym, as weight training was something I’d enjoyed fleetingly over the years. I started by going twice a week for a few months, building up to four sessions a week over the next year. I would spend 30 minutes warming up with some cardio (either cross-trainer or rowing) then use the weight machines, not knowing how to use free weights properly. When I started my medical training, I had a workout plan created for me which combined HIIT and weight training and I FINALLY learned how to use free weights! I found it so liberating and really enjoyed building muscle. I also noted the trainer had set me a goal of running 10km by the end of the semester which I laughed off (I was barely managing 3km on the treadmill without my lungs bursting!).

I was home for the holidays and decided a jog would be a lovely start to Christmas morning. It was cold and crisp with clear blue skies as I trotted along the waterfront to the local country park, greeting fellow pedestrians and dog-walkers with a ‘Merry Christmas’. I came back feeling that runner’s high and decided to map out my route out of curiosity, to see how far I’d run: it was 9km! Gobsmacked, I decided to sign up for a 10km race in Southampton the following April (2015). My ‘training’ consisted of my regular four gym sessions with a 10km treadmill run on a Wednesday. On race day I positioned myself midway through the crowd and set off at my usual pace. I was surprised to find myself running faster than most of the others around me and dodged around a hundred or so runners until I had more space! Amazingly, I placed second and won an incredible prize from Nuffield Health. Inspired, I entered the 10km Race for Life in July where I placed first.

Around this time, I had a gait analysis with Nuffield Health and discovered there was actually quite a lot more to running than putting one foot in front of the other! I was recommended brands of running trainers and was given some running-specific strengthening exercises which I incorporated into my workouts. I bought my first pair of proper running shoes and signed up to my first half marathon! I gradually built up the distance, adding 1km each week, but still only ran twice a week. Unfortunately I developed shin splints and (stupidly) ran the half marathon anyway. It was very painful but the sense of accomplishment as I crossed the finish line was incredible.

I have since run three more half marathons (current PB is 1:25:56) and one full marathon (3:15:23, where I placed 3rd British woman and won £100!). The running club I joined in March 2016 is SO supportive and open to runners of all abilities; it has been lovely to meet people of all backgrounds with a similar passion for running (there’s also a cracking biscuit selection at the end of each club run). I am fortunate enough to be running London Marathon 2017 through Championship Entry and although it is not a charity place, I have decided to use the opportunity to fundraise for The Trussell Trust because my running obsession should be put to good use! For me, I love the discipline of training for a race, the challenge of beating a PB at parkrun but also the freedom that running gives you. You can put on a pair of trainers, a good playlist and lose yourself for as long as you want. It certainly helps with mindfulness; I really look forward to a long run at the end of the week to detach myself from the stress of medical training. It also makes me value my own life; when I get back from the hospital at the end of a long day and head out for a few easy miles before dinner, I feel privileged to have strength in my legs to carry me and access food to fuel and nourish me.

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Top tips for a first time runner:

Try going for a walk and doing some intervals of jogging in between This is the premise of the couch to 5k programme and if you don’t fancy plugging into an app then this is a great way to get your legs moving! Start with 1 minute of walking and 20 seconds of jogging and switch up the intervals depending on how you feel
Get some proper running trainers fitted Jo and I both waited a little too long to do this and it really is important. I found out I was rolling in on the balls of my feet and I could have suffered serious damage if I didn’t invest in some shoes that supported my feet properly. Most running shops will offer gait analysis which means them recording you on a treadmill to see how your feet hit the ground. Most shops offer this for free with the purchase of trainers but make sure to check beforehand if you’re planning on having the analysis but not buying any shoes from the store
– Do it for the right reasons It’s so important to exercise because you want to do it and not in an attempt to “make up” for your food choices. Exercise should always be something you do out of joy and if it becomes a chore, you need to check in that you’re doing it for a positive reason
– Get a running buddy! I am very lucky to have some keen running buddies in Bristol and it definitely makes going out for a run more fun (although I usually end up giving myself a stitch from talking too much..). This makes running into a social activity as well as boosting those endorphins. If you don’t have any pals that want to join you, check out local running clubs or Park run
– Sign up for a race Once you’ve found your running groove, it’s a great idea to sign up for a future race. Having something to work towards can be a great motivator. But only do this if it’s something you want to do!

For us, running has become our remedy but for you it could be something different. In this social media crazed world it can be easy to become a victim of comparison. Instagram is filled with weight lifters and runners but maybe that exercise isn’t for you. Try a few things out and see what makes you feel the best. It could be swimming, dancing, long walks or tennis. For exercise to become something I do out of joy, I had to disassociate it from eating. Far too often we hear that people feel they’ve “earned” their meal or have to exercise to “make up” for eating out and that is so untrue. You do not need to earn the right to eat. This mindset can make exercise into a chore. For years I went to a gym and hated every minute of it so I stopped going. You have to decide what works for you and keep checking in with yourself to make sure you are enjoying it and if you’re not, you have to change it up. Now that the colder months have drawn in I’m opting for  long walks with a podcast over runs around the city because that’s what feels good for my body right now. 

Another important thing to mention here is the importance of rest. Numerous “motivational” quotes now fill our social media feeds in terms of exercise: “No pain, no gain” has become common place and people are pushing their bodies to unhealthy extremes. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to listen to your body when deciding whether or not to workout. Use how you’re feeling as a guide and only ever exercise if you truly want to. Comparison is the thief of joy and remember that lots of Instagrammers are only showing you their highlights and not the moments when they are doing nothing. This can make you think that constant exercise is the norm and that is so far from the truth. Use that intuition, trust it and remember that exercise should be a celebration of what your body can do and never a punishment for eating good food.

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