Run Forrest Run – Why exercise is good for your mental health

“Run Forrest, Run!”

When Jenny shouted these famous words to her beloved friend Forrest Gump, there was no way she would have anticipated the impact of these three words. Not only did Forrest outrun a bunch of bullies, but he discovered a freedom he’d never experienced, as the callipers on his legs literally broke apart and fell off. Forrest was free! He ran and ran, and never looked back. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a love-hate relationship with exercise my entire life. Part of me longs to fully embrace the couch potato life-style, but there’s another part that has experienced the mind-altering benefits of exercise and therefore cannot fully submit to these slothful desires!

In fact, in true Forrest Gump style, running away from my sloth-side has proven to be a life saver, because when we move our bodies, our brain produces endorphins and dopamine, which lift our serotonin levels.

But to be completely honest, the role of exercise in wellness has been a bit of a mixed bag for me. Like Forrest Gump, it always took a crisis to get me moving. 

For many years I used exercise to claw my way up out of patches of what I used to call ‘burn-out.’ Every few years I would succumb to the overwhelming realisation that I couldn’t carry on. I would sink into despair because I had allowed the drive of achievement and ambition to rob my life of the margin necessary for rest, self-care (exercise included) and leisure. My life, quite simply, would become unmanageable - again. 

So, I would take a few weeks off and infuse this forced rest with long walks that became short runs. As I exercised, my mood always improved. I was literally able to ‘run away’ from my low mood as my serotonin levels lifted. 

But once I recovered, returned to work and settled back into ‘normal,’ all my good intentions about regular exercise would quickly be squeezed out of my schedule. Before long I would be back where I started, sitting on the couch battling low mood and negative thoughts.

This all changed when the cycle of an almost manageable ‘burn out’ morphed into clinical depression in my late 30s. Sleeplessness and debilitating anxiety became my constant companions. But I refused medical help believing that if I just exercised more consistently I would be able to overcome these classic symptoms of depression. After all it had worked in the past, so why wouldn’t it work now? 

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I started exercising – seriously – everyday. And it helped. I even ran the Cathay Pacific 11 km run one year and have the singlet to prove it! But I found myself having to run further and harder to lift my mood. Until one day, I just couldn’t out run my anxiety and despair any longer. Catastrophic thinking took over, resulting in insomnia that couldn’t be resolved even with sleeping tablets. Suicidal thoughts and planning took over, until I experienced a full mental breakdown. 

The road to recovery has been long and I’ve had a serious relapse - I’m still a work in progress! But these days wellness is a priority. To begin with exercise was triggering for me and I nearly “threw the baby out with the bath water.” But the science doesn’t lie. So, exercise, albeit mild to begin with, once again became, and remains, a key part of my wellness routine. Note I said key part, not the only part! These days walking my dogs is preferable to long runs, but I’ve found an enjoyable, sustainable way of moving my body. 

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, describes physical exercise as ‘cognitive candy.’ He explains that while there is controversy around our evolutionary history as a species, there is one fact that every paleoanthropologist agrees on: We moved. Scientists estimate that our ancestors moved around 25 kilometres every day. If they didn’t they were either eaten by predators, or they starved to death. 

‘Our fancy brains developed not while we were lounging around but while we were exercising,’ Medina states. 

Studies into the effects of exercise on anxiety and depression show that physical activity can powerfully alter a sufferer’s experience for the better. Exercise is a proven scientific strategy supporting good mental health.

Medina explains that, ‘Exercise regulates the release of most of the biochemicals associated with maintaining mental health. For both depression and anxiety exercise is beneficial immediately and over the long term. It is equally effective for men and women. The longer a person exercises the greater effect. Although exercise is not a substitute for psychiatric treatment (which usually involves therapy along with medication), the role of exercise on mood is so pronounced that many psychiatrists prescribe physical activity as well. It is especially helpful in severe cases.’ 

When Forrest Gump started running away from his enemies that day, his life changed forever. We were designed to move – it’s a fact. ‘We have in our hands as close to a magic bullet for improving human health as exists in modern medicine,’ Medina affirms.

So, we can run away from exercise and likely continue to experience low mood, or we can embrace it and reap the benefits. 

“Me and Jenny was like peas and carrots,” Forrest Gump said. Good mental health and exercise go together too.  

All we need to do is start moving.

  • Jules Badger