Last week I watched the BBC documentary “Mind Over Marathon”. To test how effective exercise is in improving mental health, 10 people who have mental health issues volunteered to undertake a training programme which would hopefully enable them to run the London Marathon! Some had done a bit of running before while others were not very fit at all.
It was really moving to hear the stories of the volunteers and the challenges some had to overcome in order to even attend the first training session. The story I was most drawn to was Rhian’s. Her one year old son had died of pneumonia, then only five days later, her husband, overcome by grief, took his own life, leaving her a single mum of two young children. She was struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress as well as continuing to come to terms with her loss. She found running really helped her to feel more positive as she imagined “running into a better future”. She managed to overcome her anxiety about going out running on her own and was able to complete the marathon. She experienced a great sense of achievement and increased self-worth and made some steps towards letting go of her self-blaming thoughts.
I can highly recommend the documentary - it was very uplifting to watch.
Overall the programme demonstrated that exercise had a positive impact on the mental well-being of all participants, even those who didn’t manage to run the full marathon. Here are some of the insights I gleaned from watching it which could be helpful for anyone considering trying exercise as a way to cope with depression, anxiety or other issues.
1. Exercising with others can really help to motivate you. Strong bonds were formed within the group and they felt like a team. They found it particularly supportive to run with others who also experienced mental health issues as they felt understood by each other.
2. Missing a day doesn’t mean you have to quit. Several of the participants had weeks of feeling low and stopped running. They were encouraged to get back up and try again once they felt ready.
3. It’s important to get a balance between challenging yourself and knowing the safe limits for your body. Some of the volunteers had to make the hard decision not to run the marathon due to injuries. They were really disappointed but were encouraged not to see it as failure but as an opportunity to learn about listening to their bodies. They still came to cheer on the others in the team and gained a lot from that as well!
4. Set yourself smaller targets along the way. No one was expected to run a marathon straight away – instead they were given the chance to do some shorter races to build up their confidence and stamina. Achieving small goals is rewarding and helps to motivate you to continue towards the bigger goal.
5. The participants also benefited from being able to talk about their difficulties in a non-judgemental environment. The presenter Nick Knowles commented that he had learned the importance of “just listening”. Having counselling is one way to allow yourself a safe space to talk.
The young royals, William, Kate and Harry got involved in supporting the programme and are patrons of the charity Heads Together which aims to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues. Prince Harry commented that “talking about mental health is good for everyone”. I wholeheartedly agree!