Run Your­self Happy

Add some sci­ence to your run­ning and put even more smiles into your miles

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

10 sci­ence-backed ways to feel bet­ter now

We run­ners are gen­er­ally a happy bunch. A 20-year study of long-term marathon run­ners found they ex­pe­ri­enced less de­pres­sion, anger, ten­sion, con­fu­sion and fa­tigue com­pared with the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Other re­search has found that reg­u­lar ex­er­cis­ers are less anx­ious, more pos­i­tive and more re­silient in the face of stress. There’s no doubt­ing the many men­tal health ben­e­fits we al­ready gain from lac­ing up, but could ap­ply­ing the lat­est sci­en­tific find­ings on hap­pi­ness make our smiles even wider, both in and out of our train­ers?

Ac­tion for Hap­pi­ness (ac­tion­for hap­pi­, a not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion ded­i­cated to build­ing a hap­pier so­ci­ety, has con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search into what makes peo­ple flour­ish. ‘When we think of hap­pi­ness, we tend to think about short-term plea­sure, like the runner’s high,’ says Vanessa King, the lead psy­chol­o­gist for Ac­tion for Hap­pi­ness. ‘But the con­cept of eu­dai­mo­nia re­lates more to pur­su­ing ful­fil­ment and sat­is­fac­tion than eu­phoric joy. We need both for a happy life.’

Last year, Ac­tion for Hap­pi­ness pub­lished a list of 10 ev­i­dence-based keys to hap­pier liv­ing, and run­ning can help you find them all.

‘The 10 keys are a syn­the­sis of the re­search on what makes us happy – high­light­ing ar­eas where we can take ac­tion or make choices that have been shown to in­crease hap­pi­ness,’ says King, au­thor of Tenkeysto Hap­pier­liv­ing (Head­line Home) and also a runner. ‘I see it as a menu, not a pre­scrip­tion, as we all need dif­fer­ent things and at dif­fer­ent times.’

In­deed, one of the keys is ex­er­cise, so it would be easy to as­sume you’re tick­ing that box. But the rea­son ex­er­cise con­trib­utes to hap­pi­ness goes be­yond an en­dor­phin-driven buzz. ‘Tak­ing care of your body has a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the mind,’ says King. ‘Ex­er­cise is a method of look­ing af­ter your­self.’ It’s quite pos­si­ble to be a runner with­out do­ing that, how­ever – push­ing your­self too hard, ig­nor­ing nig­gles and deny­ing your body the re­cov­ery and nu­tri­ents it needs. It’s an ex­am­ple of how a few tweaks to your at­ti­tude and, per­haps, your train­ing, could help you max­imise the ben­e­fits you de­rive from run­ning and move you fur­ther along the road to hap­pi­ness.

HAP­PI­NESS KEY GIV­ING Do things for oth­ers

When Matthew Rees saw David Wyeth on the verge of col­lapse less than 300m from the fin­ish line of this year’s Lon­don Marathon, he aban­doned his own race goals to help a stranger to the fin­ish. ‘He had come so far and af­ter 26 miles of run­ning I wanted to make sure he made the fin­ish,’ says Rees. Later, down­play­ing an act that cap­tured me­dia at­ten­tion world­wide, he com­mented that such acts of kind­ness hap­pen rou­tinely in the run­ning com­mu­nity. That’s good, be­cause re­search pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional journal of be­hav­iour al Medicine sug­gests help­ing oth­ers boosts not just the re­cip­i­ent’s hap­pi­ness, but the per­son of­fer­ing as­sis­tance, too. ‘Help­ing oth­ers pro­vides a sense of mean­ing, gives feel­ings of com­pe­tence and im­proves mood,’ says King. ‘It also takes our minds off our own trou­bles.’ This has been dubbed the ‘helper’s high’ and, in­trigu­ingly, it ap­pears to be con­ta­gious. ‘Re­search has shown that ob­serv­ing some­one do­ing some­thing kind or thought­ful, or be­ing on the re­ceiv­ing end of it our­selves, in­spires us to fol­low suit,’ says King.

Feel miles bet­ter

START SMALL Peo­ple of­ten worry that they don’t have time to vol­un­teer or help oth­ers, but be­ing more giv­ing doesn’t have to in­volve grand ges­tures. ‘Just a smile is an act of giv­ing,’ says King. Think about the small things you could do right now – one study found that when peo­ple per­formed five acts of kind­ness, one day a week for six weeks, their well­be­ing in­creased. ‘Of­fer a fel­low runner a few words of en­cour­age­ment as you pass each other or con­grat­u­late some­one’s achieve­ments on so­cial me­dia,’ sug­gests men­tal-per­for­mance coach Midgie Thompson (bright­fu­turescoach­

PUT YOUR HAND UP Re­search by vol­un­teer­ing char­ity Join In found reg­u­lar vol­un­teers in sport had 10 per cent higher lev­els of self-es­teem, emo­tional well­be­ing and re­silience com­pared with those who had never vol­un­teered. Eighty­seven per cent of vol­un­teers said it gave their life more mean­ing.

GIVE BACK Help get a new runner – or run­ners – started. Con­tact run­to­gether. to find out how to set up your own group. ‘I took a friend to her first Parkrun

a few years back – she cel­e­brated her 70th last week,’ says Thompson. ‘She’s be­come part of some­thing she never imag­ined she’d be part of and is try­ing to in­spire oth­ers to be­come part of it too.’

Downer alert

It’s great to be gen­er­ous with your time and en­ergy but make sure you leave time for your­self too. Re­search shows the hap­pi­ness and health cor­re­la­tion with al­tru­ism only ex­ists when you aren’t over­whelmed by tasks.

HAP­PI­NESS KEY POSITIVITY Look for what is good

A Pol­ish study at Gdansk Univer­sity found ath­letes had a more op­ti­mistic out­look than non-ath­letes; this glass-half-full ap­proach to life con­trib­utes to greater men­tal well­be­ing. ‘It’s not about be­ing in de­nial when bad things hap­pen, it’s sim­ply about try­ing to fo­cus on the good in any sit­u­a­tion rather than the neg­a­tives,’ says King. ‘It’s our thoughts and in­ter­pre­ta­tions of events, not the events them­selves, that drive our emo­tions.’

Feel miles bet­ter

SEEK POSITIVES They can be found in every run and race. Per­haps you ran with­out walk­ing, you met a friendly dog, you felt the sun on your face or you caught up with friends. ‘It doesn’t al­ways have to be about per­for­mance,’ says pro­fes­sor Andy Lane, a sport psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Wolver­hamp­ton who has con­ducted re­search on the ben­e­fits of nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments on men­tal state.

Downer alert

Fix­at­ing on what went wrong takes the joy out of run­ning and adds pres­sure to your next out­ing. ‘Ask your­self what went right,’ says Thompson. Fo­cus­ing on the positives will make you feel hap­pier and doesn’t mean you can’t learn from your mis­takes and do bet­ter next time.

HAP­PI­NESS KEY RE­SILIENCE Find ways to bounce back

Re­silience is in­creas­ingly be­ing recog­nised as an im­por­tant life skill, says Thompson. Yes, skill, not char­ac­ter­is­tic, be­cause it can be learned. And in other good news, re­search also sug­gests that some of the neu­ro­log­i­cal changes caused by run­ning can help in­crease our re­silience. One study found that par­tic­i­pat­ing in a 12-week run­ning

pro­gramme re­duced heart rate and blood pres­sure in re­sponse to a stress­ful men­tal arith­metic test. Other re­search looked at ex­ec­u­tives who had ex­pe­ri­enced a stress­ful event; it found those who ex­er­cised the most dis­play­ing the least-in­tense phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal symp­toms of stress. But it can be a dou­ble-edged sword. ‘Many run­ners tick off a lot of their [hap­pi­ness] keys through run­ning,’ says King. ‘If some­thing happens that means they can’t run, what happens then?’ A psy­cho­log­i­cal tool called ‘If/then plan­ning’ helps to arm you with cop­ing strate­gies. ‘It’s about think­ing of the mea­sures you could take to cope with or al­le­vi­ate a bad sit­u­a­tion,’ King ex­plains. ‘If you were to get in­jured, think how you might be able get the positives you de­rive from run­ning else­where – would it be vol­un­teer­ing with your club to keep up so­cial con­nec­tion? Would it be reading up on dif­fer­ent train­ing meth­ods to avoid fu­ture in­juries, or tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity to try a new sport while you can’t run? All of us ex­pe­ri­ence tough times in our lives but how we re­spond to them is what in­flu­ences our well­be­ing.’

Feel miles bet­ter

IF/THEN PLAN­NING Spend some time think­ing about how you’d cope with sce­nar­ios where you have to forgo your train­ers for a pe­riod, such as ill­ness or in­jury.

TOOLS AT THE READY Think about what’s helped you re­cover from tough times – be­ing in na­ture, help­ing oth­ers or so­cial­is­ing – so you build up strate­gies that will help you bounce back.

SEE THE BIG PIC­TURE Keep your run­ning in per­spec­tive. ‘It’s not the end of the world if you don’t achieve your goal,’ says Thompson. ‘It’s OK to feel sorry for your­self ini­tially, but then move on.’

Downer alert

Be clear that re­silience doesn’t mean you have to pre­tend ev­ery­thing is OK. That can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive so don’t be afraid to ex­press how you are feel­ing or ask for help. ‘Re­silience is not about be­ing ma­cho,’ says Lane.

‘Eat nu­tri­tious food, get enough sleep and lis­ten to your body. This will make you feel bet­ter’

HAP­PI­NESS KEY COM­MU­NITY Con­nect with oth­ers

Re­la­tion­ships are essen­tial for hap­pi­ness. Be­ing con­nected with and feel­ing close to fam­ily and friends is the core, but our broader so­cial net­works also con­fer a sense of be­long­ing. ‘Con­nec­tion with oth­ers is a ba­sic hu­man need,’ says King. As a runner you’re part of a global com­mu­nity, but it’s the smaller sub-com­mu­ni­ties within that which truly make you feel like you be­long. ‘Parkrun is the per­fect ex­am­ple,’ says King. ‘It’s as much about be­ing there on a Satur­day morn­ing as about the run it­self.’ See­ing all those smil­ing faces on the fin­ish line boosts the like­li­hood of you feel­ing hap­pier, too, ac­cord­ing to a study in the Bri­tishmed­i­caljour­nal. The 134,000+ mem­bers of run­ning clubs will at­test to how much they gain from be­long­ing to a like-minded group: not just great run­ning bud­dies, ad­vice and routes but also sup­port, en­cour­age­ment and the so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. ‘You’re sharing the same ex­pe­ri­ences and that is both up­lift­ing and mo­ti­vat­ing,’ says Thompson.

Feel miles bet­ter

JOIN UP Join­ing a group or club is one of the eas­i­est ways to be­come part of a run­ning com­mu­nity (see britishath­let­ics. or run­to­ Or get in­volved in your lo­cal Parkrun (parkrun. com) or Goodgym (

GIVE KUDOS Vir­tual com­mu­ni­ties can be just as pow­er­ful, says Thompson. If you prefer to – or need to – train alone you can con­nect with oth­ers through net­works such as Strava.

Downer alert

Don’t let your com­mit­ment to run­ning and the com­mu­nity around it be­come an ob­ses­sion that crowds out fam­ily and non-run­ning friends. Be flex­i­ble and con­sid­er­ate about how your run­ning fits in with your loved ones and you’ll all be hap­pier.

HAP­PI­NESS KEY EX­ER­CISE Take care of your body

As a runner you’ll be fa­mil­iar with the plea­sure of bask­ing in a postrun glow. You may as­sume that the buzz is all down to ex­er­cise-trig­gered feel-good hor­mones, but Dr John Ratey, au­thor of Spark:howex­er­cise Wil­limprovethep­er­for­manceof Your­brain (Quer­cus) be­lieves it’s more com­plex. ‘In ad­di­tion to feel­ing good when you ex­er­cise, you feel good about your­self and that has a pos­i­tive ef­fect that can’t be traced to a par­tic­u­lar chem­i­cal or area in the brain,’ says Ratey.

Numer­ous stud­ies have shown that even a sin­gle run can boost mood and the ben­e­fits ac­crue over time, so ex­er­cise has both an acute and a long-term ef­fect on men­tal health. ‘When you’re pur­su­ing run­ning goals, you have a good rea­son to im­prove other as­pects of your life­style, too,’ adds Thompson. ‘ You’re more likely to adopt other healthy habits.’

Feel miles bet­ter

MIX IT UP En­sure your runs are var­ied in length and ef­fort level so you get a range of phys­i­cal ben­e­fits and don’t over­stress one sys­tem. Re­searchers haven’t defini­tively iso­lated the per­fect type of run to elicit the runner’s high, but Mi­haly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of Flow:thep­sy­chol­o­gyof

Op­ti­mal Ex­pe­ri­ence (Harper), sug­gests that it’s likely to be a run that hits the sweet spot – chal­leng­ing enough to gain a sense of accomplishment but not so chal­leng­ing that it takes you too far out­side your com­fort zone.

CROSS-TRAIN It will re­duce in­jury risk and add bal­ance and va­ri­ety to your train­ing.

LOOK AF­TER YOUR­SELF ‘Run­ning can be the fo­cal point of this, but it’s not the only thing,’ says Lane. ‘Eat nu­tri­tious food, get enough sleep and lis­ten to your body. This will make you feel bet­ter and im­prove your run­ning health.’

Downer alert

Our bod­ies need rest as much as they need phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. ‘Over­do­ing it when you’re ill or in­jured isn’t good and could im­pact on other keys, for ex­am­ple, set­ting and achiev­ing goals,’ says King. Make peace with tak­ing a break when you need to. Last year, a Brazil­ian study found that run­ners with signs of ex­er­cise ad­dic­tion who had to stop for two weeks had a sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in hap­pi­ness, show­ing in­creased lev­els of de­pres­sion, con­fu­sion, anger and fa­tigue. ‘If it isn’t mak­ing you happy, ask your­self what you’re get­ting out of it,’ says Thompson.

HAP­PI­NESS KEY AWARE­NESS No­tice what’s around you

Be­com­ing more mind­ful and aware of the world around us does won­ders for our well-be­ing, ac­cord­ing to find­ings by Ac­tion for Hap­pi­ness. Run­ning gives us the op­por­tu­nity to do so, putting us in the mo­ment,

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