Any form of physical exercise will help to improve both your physical and emotional wellbeing when performed on a regular basis. Having made the decision to start running regularly, it pays to know exactly what good you are doing for your mind and body, as this will help you to stay motivated and ensure your long-term fitness.
Running is the perfect sport to take up, whatever your reasons for doing so. It is cheap and easy to get started; all you need is some sports gear and a pair of trainers, and the world is your oyster.
You can start running at any time, anywhere; alone or with friends; with the dog and over the fields; on the road or around the park. It fits into your daily schedule no matter how busy you are and it makes no demands on you apart from those that you set.
Literally anyone can run; it just takes that first step. It might not feel easy to begin with, and you’ll initially spend a lot of time walking rather than running, but progression is fast and the physical benefits start from day one.
1. Stay a healthy weight
There are many reasons why people get into running in the first place, but one of the most common is weight loss. Obesity is a serious problem in the developed world, particularly in the UK and US. As well as leading to a whole range of future health problems, it also causes sluggishness and lack of motivation.
By taking up running you are taking control of the problem, but it’s not going to be an easy ride. If you have never exercised before and you are obese, then you will need to start out nice and slowly. The extra weight that you are carrying will put more stress on your joints than a person of a healthy weight, making it harder to run. You will need to start losing some weight from the outset before you can really begin a running program.
This means taking control of the diet side of things and increasing day-to-day activity. Even small steps like walking part of the way to work, taking the stairs instead of the lift or doing the housework vigorously will build up and kick-start weight loss. Stick to three healthy meals a day and two snacks, made up of plenty of fruit and veg, wholegrain carbohydrates and protein.
Once the weight starts to come down, you can begin a proper run/walk program, which will be mostly walking, rather than running, until your fitness improves. Wear proper sports kit and running trainers, even when you’re walking at the beginning, as you want to ensure that you don’t injure yourself and throw yourself off course. As you get fitter and healthier, you can begin to partake in longer runs and speedwork, which both help the weight to fall off.
If you’re carrying just a little extra weight, then you will progress more quickly. While you still need to build up your fitness, you can start running much sooner. If you only have a little weight to lose, then it will come off more slowly. At first, you may see a small weight increase as your body begins to build muscle, but the long term you will see results. Maintaining a healthy weight is something that you need to keep up for life, as it will help you to ward off medical complications and help you live longer.
This means you need to ensure that your running program is both varied and adapted to your new fitness every four to six weeks. Hitting a plateau will mean that the weight loss stops. Your goal is to get down to a healthy weight and then stay there, which regular running will help to ensure. As you lose weight, you will find that your energy levels go through the roof, making you more productive on a day-to-day basis. Not only that, but you will sleep better too. Rest assured that you have made the right decision to take up running; it burns off more calories than any other physical activity, bar cross-country skiing!
2. Prevent health problems
Even if you’re not starting to run because of a weight issue, then there are plenty of benefits that running can give you. Many of these are preventative and stop the onset of common problems associated with the ageing process. As we get older, our bone density decreases, our muscle strength and tone starts to reduce, and we are at a higher risk of illness like cancer and diabetes.
Unfortunately, there is no miracle cure to stop us ageing, but by maintaining health and fitness from a younger age, we can put ourselves in good stead for the future. Think of your fitness as a pension plan – the more you put in, and the earlier you start contributing, the bigger the rewards when you’re older. Your heart, in particular, is a muscle that feels the strain of ageing, which is why the risk of heart disease, strokes and angina increases. These are known as cardiovascular risks, and you can help lower your chances of suffering by ensuring that you are regularly working your heart muscles by increasing heart rate through cardiovascular exercise.
As well as strengthening the heart itself by increasing and decreasing heart rate, you are forcing the arteries to expand and contract to let the blood flow, which keeps them elastic. Exercise improves your circulation as well, which helps to reduce the chance of blood clots in the future, which can cause strokes and heart attacks.
Cholesterol is also a big problem these days, with high levels causing fatty deposits to build up in the heart, leading to heart disease. Running has been shown to increase ‘HDL’ levels, which is ‘good’ cholesterol. These transport the fat away from the heart and back to the liver, where it is processed. If you do suffer from high levels of cholesterol, then you will need to manage it through diet as well as exercise, but it is a condition that is reversible, and will set you up for a healthier future if dealt with soon enough.
Other than the heart, running helps protect your health in many other ways. For a start, it boosts the immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells. As well as ensuring that you don’t suffer from common colds and flu, by having a stronger immune system you will combat the early onset of more serious afflictions like cancer and diabetes. It also means that you will recover more quickly from illness, and can recover more quickly after childbirth or an operation, for example.
Your lungs will benefit from any form of exercise. Running forces your lungs to work by pushing air in and out rapidly. This will, over time, increase your lung capacity, making them work more efficiently. If you are a smoker (and we recommend giving up if you’re going to start running), then it will help to undo a little of the damage that you’re doing. If you’ve given up, running will start to repair your lungs and decrease the risk of smoking-related lung diseases. Asthmatics also benefit from exercise, as it naturally increases lung capacity and can alleviate the symptoms, reducing the frequency that an inhaler is needed. Just make sure that you always carry your inhaler with you and stop if you feel an attack coming on.
Finally, running is a weight-bearing exercise. This means that it will help you to increase your bone density, making bones stronger and less prone to breakages. This can help prevent the onset of osteoporosis, which is common as bone density decreases with age. It also helps you to prevent injury and stress fractures, and able to cope better with the impact of running on hard surfaces.
All of these various health benefits lead to a longer, healthier life and there is no reason to stop as you get older. Indeed, you will see people in their eighties and nineties lining up at the start of marathons!
3. Keep illness at bay
As well as preventing the onset of certain illnesses in the first place, exercise can be used to help manage the symptoms of existing medical problems too.
For example, those with Type 2 diabetes are encouraged to exercise to help with blood sugar control and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Muscles that are being used for running use up more glucose than when they are at rest, leading to greater sugar uptake and a lower blood sugar level. While the benefits of running for diabetics is clear, sufferers do need to be more careful than a medically healthy runner.
For a start, it is important that those on blood-sugar-lowering medication control their carbohydrate levels carefully, making sure that they eat enough relative to exercise so that the blood sugar level doesn’t suddenly come crashing down. Also, diabetics should be careful when using sports drinks or sports snacks, as these can often be laden with sugars and carbohydrates that can dramatically affect blood sugar levels.
Asthmatics are another group of people who can be helped through exercise, but again precautions need to be taken. Running will help to increase lung capacity, which can reduce breathing difficulties. However, exercise-induced asthma can lead to worsening symptoms during and after running, which is an indication that your medication needs to be re-evaluated.
Seek the advice of a doctor before starting a running program, as they will help plan how much running, and at what intensity, it is safe for you to do. It can help to use your inhaler just before you set off for a run, as this will open up your lungs ready for the extra exertion needed. Always ensure that you have your inhaler with you for the duration of your run, and if you are running with someone else, make sure that they know of your condition.
More serious conditions can sometimes be helped with exercise, but this needs to be under the supervision of a qualified professional. Exercise referral programs exist in the UK and other countries for those with specific conditions that can be helped with regular exercise, including diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis. These schemes help you build up to the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week – which is a good benchmark for us all to aim for.
4. Stay happy and stress-free
The benefits of running are not just physical. There are a myriad of mental and emotional pros to this sport. For a start, it is proven that exercise helps to reduce stress, which in today’s busy lifestyles, packed with family, work and more, is a real bonus. It gives you time to yourself to reflect on the day’s problems and issues, helping you to work through them and to leave them behind. This is why many people prefer to run after work; to help bridge the gap between working life and home life.
By exercising, you increase the serotonin in your brain, which is a chemical that helps to lift your mood, making you feel more positive. It can also make you more productive, as you can approach problems calmly and find reasonable solutions without stress. This is why exercise is often prescribed by doctors to help with stress and anxiety-related disorders. Not only that, but the decisions and solutions that you come up with during or after running are also likely to be better quality, as running helps to sharpen your focus and mental stamina, thanks to the increased blood flow to the brain.
Two of the most common mental health problems in the world are depression and insomnia. Often, running can help with the treatment of both. For those suffering from depression, those magical endorphins that are released when running are helpful in mood control. One common cause of depression can be a lack of self-worth and lower self- esteem.
Running is predominantly goals-based, meaning that you are working towards achieving something. By monitoring progress and seeing the results, this can help you to feel more motivated in other areas of your life, proving that you are capable of achieving anything that you put your mind to.
Insomnia is a tricky disorder to treat, as there are so many reasons behind it. However, exercise can help to relax the body and encourage sleep, and is often recommended to sufferers. Running in the morning can help to shake away the tired effects of a restless night, which can help with performance during the day. However, if you feel over-tired, then the quality of your run will not be as good and you may lose form, leading to possible injury.
Running in the evening helps to settle the mind after a long day at work and also tires the body to aid sleep. Just bear in mind that after running you will feel more awake and your heart rate will be increased, so you will need to ensure that you leave around three hours before finishing a run and going to bed so that you have time to recover. Also, consider that you need to re-fuel as soon as you finish your run, as you don’t want to eat too close to bedtime or your digestion churning away will keep you awake.
Running regularly improves your physical appearance too, which can help with motivation, mood, self-esteem and more. Your improved circulation will give you healthy skin and glowing cheeks, and the exercise will tone your body and reduce excess weight. When you feel good about the way you look, you will feel better on the inside too.
Hopefully, you will feel encouraged to take control of your mental and physical wellbeing through running. Take it up now and enjoy a longer, healthier life.
5. Healthy body, healthy mind
Running releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, so it is no wonder that exercise is often prescribed by doctors to help manage common mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, insomnia and depression. These chemicals include Dopamine and Serotonin, both of which have the effect of raising your mood and making you feel generally happier.
Running can help to improve self-esteem, body image perception and feelings of isolation, as well as helping to relieve stressful thinking, which in turn leads to better sleep.
As well as the chemical reactions caused by running, having a goal in mind helps you to focus on something positive and you can work towards this, which helps with motivation and a sense of purpose. It is important to note that exercise is not a ‘cure’ for these issues, which often have deep-set causes.
If you suspect that you are suffering from a mental illness, then you do need to visit your doctor, as you may require medication or counselling, or a combination of both. However, running can help you with the day-to-day management of these issues, especially if they are short-term problems.