A women running through a forest with trees around her and leaves on the ground, with the sunlight beaming through an opening where the runner is heading to. Being in nature can help with mental health.

The Power of Physical Activity and the Positive Impact on Our Mental Health

In these honest words Active Devon’s Claire Beney shares her personal journey about how sport and physical activity has helped with her mental health whilst going through some very sad times.

Most of Us Will Experience Times of Sadness at Some Point in Our Lives

In recognition of World Mental Health Day, I had been thinking about what mental health means to me. I tend to think of it positively, of feeling good and having good mental health as well as the not so good mental health.

The more I experience life, the more I realise many of us will experience poor mental health for one reason or another at some point in our lives. And one reason that most of us can relate to is grief.

I experienced this in September 2017 when I lost my amazing Dad.

I can remember at the time telling a friend that I wish I could wear a ‘recently bereaved’ badge so people would be extra patient and kind. In reality a badge would probably not have helped but we could all do with a reminder that in the words of Ian Maclaren (or Plato, or John Watson, depending on your source), we should:

‘Be kind, for everyone is fighting a private battle we know nothing about.’

Many people are struggling with the effects of depression and anxiety but don’t open up about their struggles, and it can be all too easy to miss in our busy, often preoccupied lives.

The reason for my blog post is to share what pulled me through this time and what keeps pulling me through, and that is, the power of sport and physical activity.

Finding Motivation at Difficult Times

Many people get told the fantastic news that they’ve got into the London Marathon, and in 2017 I was one of those lucky people. When you are weighed down with loss it is incredibly hard to get your trainers on and go running. However, I truly, truly believe that my marathon place helped me with my physical and mental health and finding a crucial sense of purpose.

It helped that I was running for a charity. As research shows, doing something for others is one of the best ways to make you feel happier. I had a charity place for the London Parks half marathon as part of my marathon training plan. The date of this event was just a week after Dad died, when my training had gone completely to pot.

I questioned my physical and mental ability to be able to run but run/walk I did! (I probably should offer apologies here to the not one but two hotels I stayed in the night before and the tears over the car parking space. If you are reading this, ’it wasn’t about the parking space!’)

Crossing the finishing line of that half marathon was so hard. I’m not normally an emotional person but there were lots of tears. So many things that went wrong over that weekend. But I was very proud that I’d run in difficult circumstances, and it gave me the inner confidence to know that with the right training I could complete the marathon.

Running Became an Incredibly Healing Time

The long training runs gave me the mental head space to think about Dad as well as zone out to music and just focus on ‘not walking!’ Whilst it was physically demanding, the time to myself was incredibly healing.

Running around a beautiful reservoir in Devon allowed me to spend time outside, soaking up the beauty of Dartmoor, even if over that winter the snow decided to work against me. Beautiful to look at, less fun to run in.

All the training paid off and in April 2018, I ran the marathon with no tears but in full knowledge that Dad would have been proud of me.

In 2018, what got me through the first anniversary of my dad’s death, was cycling 52k across Dartmoor. This was to raise money for a charity that supported Dad at home. Whilst there were many moments where I regretted my decision – turns out I’m not a good cyclist – this event gave me a purpose and a challenge. And the pint at the end with friends and family made it all worthwhile.

My Advice on How to Achieve Good Mental Health

Without planning it, I found that I had followed some great advice for how to achieve good mental health and wellbeing:

1. Do something for others.
2. Connect with nature.
3. Release some endorphins through exercise and activity.
4. Do something for yourself.

So where am I now? Am I a runner?

Well, I think the answer is yes.

I took on the challenge of the London marathon to support a charity and did something that scared me. I ticked it off my own bucket list and, if I’m honest also hope that I’d lose a little weight. That last one was quite a big motivator, not that I have previously admitted that.

Never did I imagine that I’d catch the running bug.
Never did I think I’d get up early to squeeze a run in.

The Reason for This Newfound Dedication

Well, it’s the impact on my wellbeing. It’s the mental space to zone out for a run, it’s time away from the demands of motherhood and work life. And it’s made me a happier person.

It’s that extra resilience that you find when you realise you can keep going to cross the finish line, even when everything hurts!

I’ve kept at running. Even when my head is saying ‘no more for now thanks, there are more important things to do’, the same head seems to keep clicking ‘enter’ for new events. Running the London marathon and experiencing the utter high of that amazing event has seen me enter a further two marathons. Plus, a handful of half marathons as well as running the local park runs.

In April 2019, I ran my second marathon in Manchester and again the atmosphere and crowds were amazing, and I left that event feeling happy to be alive. It’s not all about the big moments though. Those small midweek runs that have become routine, provide valuable headspace in what can be a pretty fast-paced life. Those very small runs, where you aren’t trying to be faster or better than anyone else. The ones where all you are doing is appreciating being outdoors.

What’s Kept Me Running is the Inner Confidence Running Has Given Me

Those initial reasons now seem somewhat shallow.

‘I’m not running to lose myself anymore: I’m running to find myself.’

And the reason for this blog post?

It’s simply because there isn’t a single person, I know who couldn’t benefit from increasing their wellbeing levels. It’s running that has helped me, but it may be walking, cycling, dancing, or something else for you. It doesn’t really matter what the activity is, it just matters that you do it.

There are so many opportunities to try something new in terms of activity and the more you do, the more you realise how good you feel.

The rules I accidentally discovered back in 2017 are truer today than ever:

  • Do something for others.
  • Get outside into this beautiful world of ours.
  • Release those endorphins through exercise and activity.
  • Do something for yourself.

And through my journey and what I’ve learnt along the way, I’ll add one more:

  • Make your mental health and wellbeing a priority.

You can also listen to Claire’s Podcast Running for Good Mental Health.