Over recent years the spotlight of society has shone brightly on the need to support our mental wellbeing, highlighting the struggles faced by many and championing the power of physical activity in combating poor mental health. Campaigns have been launched to ensure we look after ourselves and take time to talk or listen to others. Awareness has never been higher. But I never thought poor mental health would be something I’d have to worry about.
Like everyone, I live with my fair share of stress. Parenting children who are incapable of doing anything without the aid of a screen, for example, has often brought me to my knees. Work, meanwhile, routinely causes me to hurl abuse at spreadsheets and, at home, the requirement for any kind of DIY has been known to make me sweat uncontrollably.
Through it all, though, I have continued to run, long recognising the ability of a two-hour trail run to reduce my stress and make me forget about the lopsided curtain rail. But I’d not considered the fundamental benefit that time on my feet was having on my mental health.
Shortly after turning 40, however, a protracted period of tests and biopsies confirmed I had stage-two prostate cancer – despite having no symptoms whatsoever and otherwise being in pretty good shape. I even beat my 10k PB a fortnight before my diagnosis!
So my 40th year took a rather dark turn, as did my mental health. Throughout the testing and treatment, I became more withdrawn and unpleasant to be around. My optimism was replaced by unfamiliar pessimism, I couldn’t appreciate my family, and I spent too long trapped inside my own head.
But it could have been a lot worse, had I not had running.
Living in the depths of Hampshire, in a small town fringed by hundreds of square miles of countryside, I took to the trails as soon after my diagnosis as possible, primarily to ensure that I was as fit for surgery as I could possibly be.
The feeling of rough terrain underfoot, the solitude, the closeness to nature, the rain, the wind, the hard uphills and the scrabbly downhills; all of it served to take me away from the prison of my own mind and from all thoughts of blood tests and surgery. Instead, I found myself lost – often literally – in a world of twisting trails, listening only to the sound of my own breath and the world around me. It was as close to peace as I’ve ever experienced and each time I arrived home, I felt re-energised and unspeakably grateful.
It was the same after surgery. The housebound early weeks of recovery were hard, like being trapped in a nightmare of self-pity with nothing but Homes Under The Hammer for company. So, being released from captivity and back into the wilds felt like being reborn. I was escaping from home, entirely independent and feeling my physical strength returning with every run. The grip of self-pity, meanwhile, was released and I quickly realised everything I’d ever read about the benefits of running for those with poor mental health was unequivocally true.
We all know physical activity reduces our stress hormones while increasing our feel-good hormones, but the NHS is so convinced by the psychological benefits that it is now prescribing physical activity for those with depression. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has specifically recommended that people with mild to moderate depression take part in three sessions a week, lasting about 45 minutes to one hour, over a 10-14-week period.
So, my advice to anyone facing any kind of personal adversity and challenge to their mental health is simple: find a path, run, get lost, savour the peace, watch the wildlife, be rained upon, listen to the world, sweat, climb the hill, embrace the dirt and forget reality. I guarantee that you’ll feel like a different person afterwards.
About the writer: Tim is an experienced journalist, author, trail runner and champion of men’s health issues. When he’s not enjoying the meditative peace of his local Hampshire countryside, he’s likely to be found shaking his head at a child for having their face buried in an iPhone.
If you enjoyed this column, Tim’s new book - The Running Drug - explores the link between mental health and running. It’s available now in ebook and paperback formats from Amazon.