Going the distance brings benefits to one's mental health

Many of us are aware of the physical benefits of exercise.

Endurance sports, like running, can trim our waistlines, improve our cardiovascular health and lower our risks of chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.

But that is not all that we stand to gain by putting on those running shoes. Through its effects on our brains, running can also sharpen our minds and nurse our hearts.

COPING WITH STRESS

Stress is part and parcel of living in Singapore.

If poorly managed, it can eventually lead to disabling mental conditions like depression and anxiety. Many studies have shown that aerobic exercise promotes the release of norepinephrine and serotonin, brain chemicals that can moderate our response to stress.

It also allows the secretion of endorphins, a hormone which generates feelings of happiness that is also responsible for our uplifting mood after a long run.

Regular running can also alleviate anxiety.

When we run, we learn to focus on our bodies and become more mindful of our surroundings. Subconsciously we also improve our breathing pattern and teach our bodies to relax.

The end result?

Less tension and worries rummaging through our heads, and a more regulated sleep cycle so our bodies can enjoy a better rest at night.

SHARPENING COGNITION

Animal studies have shown that aerobic exercise can boost brain cells and improve nerve connections in the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. High-intensity running is found to increase the levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein which is associated with our brain's capacity to function well.

Running has also been found to reduce the risk of dementia in the elderly. A recent study of elderly participants found that those who engage in regular exercise performed better in memory, IQ and mathematics tests compared to those who did not.

CONFIDENCE AND CHARACTER BUILDING

When we look good, we naturally feel even better. Running is a great way to lose weight, which is also linked to positive self-esteem and gives us that extra bounce in our step. By changing up your routine, setting training goals and taking part in running events, we also learn to overcome physical and psychological challenges. When faced with setbacks in life, running can be the healthier alternative to escapism or depression.

In that same vein, the organisers of The Light of Hope Run 2017, Touch Community Services, aim to raise the awareness of depression. How apt this is, as running itself provides pertinent benefits against depression.

So the next time you feel down, consider going for a run - that extra mile might be what it takes to bring back that smile.


•Dr Aaron Meng is a medical doctor who is in advanced training in psychiatry. He is also an avid runner and has a 2hr 48min personal best in the marathon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'Going the distance brings benefits to one's mental health'. Print Edition | Subscribe