Neil Turner explores the relationship between running and mental health, and introduces the idea that running's mental benefits extend far beyond just those who suffer from depression...
Running and Depression
When discussing running and mental health, people invariably talk about how the activity can benefit those suffering from depression. Whilst this is true, it fails to address an important point that running improves the mental health of everyone who participates in the activity, irrespective of whether they have a mental illness.
By focusing so strongly on the links to helping depression (which are, of course, important), you risk giving those with no mental health issues the impression running has no benefit to their mental wellbeing. As there is still a taboo around mental health issues, people often take the attitude of: 'There's nothing wrong with me mentally, what does running have to offer?' Plenty actually...
The Science Bit
Though I'm keen to avoid getting bogged down in neuroscience, the old 'chemical-releasing' aspect of running does have some solid science behind it. Scientists have also discovered running can effectively detox the body of depressive chemicals. During aerobic exercise, the muscles begin to act like the liver or kidneys and produce an enzyme which clears out a molecule linked to depression.
One Hundred Miles of Solitude
The social aspect of running is something groups, clubs and race organisers are quick to champion. The solitude running offers, however, is often overlooked. You need only look at the number of running blogs that have materialised in recent years to realise runners tend to be very creative people. Writing and running may not seem like obvious bedfellows - the idea of Orwell or Hemingway completing marathons seems a bit absurd - but for modern writers it's becoming increasingly common. Indeed, many claim that running helps the creative process.
Christopher MacDougal and Haruki Murakami are probably the two most famous novelists who enjoy running. Other enthusiasts include the late Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women), and Joyce Carol Oates, who once remarked that running helped 'keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control'.
Murakami famously wrote about running in his 2009 memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He weighed in on the creativity discussion by saying: "I usually run with my mind empty. However, when I run empty-minded, something naturally and abruptly crawls in. Without a solid base of physical strength, you can't accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now."
Personally, I don't think running is a cure-all for writer's block, but it can certainly stimulate creativity. I've come up with ideas for articles whilst out running and even written entire pieces in my head. Allowing your mind to wander helps promote what some would term 'high-level thinking'.