Runners' Stress Survey - First Results

RW members helped Steve Mynard with his 'A' Level Psychology survey into running and stress - here are some early findings


Posted: 8 February 2006

...an overwhelming response!

Dear Fellow Runners,

Thank you to all of you who completed my Runners’ Health and Lifestyle Questionnaire, mentioned in the last Runners’ World electronic newsletter. A staggering 2110 people completed the questionnaire!

The specific aspect of health that the survey was designed to study was Symptoms of Stress. Research indicates that if people are more physically active, they are generally less stressed. There were 20 key questions in the survey, covering known emotional, physical, psychological and social symptoms of stress. When the scores for these questions were extracted from the data, a total Symptoms of Stress Score was calculated for each participant. A comparison was made between participants’ stress scores and the number of hours they spent running each week. This is known as a correlational study – the hypothesis being that as the number of hours spent running each week increases the individual’s stress score will reduce.

The sheer number of responses meant that I have been able to construct two genuinely representative samples of runners, balanced between men and women and spread over the age ranges from under 30 to over 60. The difference between the groups is that one group is made up of runners who have been running for more than two years, and the other is made up of runners who have been running for less than six months. This allows us to deduce whether the ability to cope with stress increases with regular physical exercise over a longer time period.

So far, I have calculated the correlation for the ‘over two years' experience’ group. The correlation came out as -0.342. A perfect correlation would be +1 or -1. We therefore cannot say that increased running will always lead to reduced stress, but we can say that there is a moderate correlation.

Past research on the correlation between potentially stressful events in a person’s life (such as divorce or bankruptcy) and stress-related illness have found much weaker correlations than this study. The Symptoms of Stress Score is a more accurate way of assessing an individual’s stress level. This research shows that taking up running can help reduce the symptoms of stress and that the more hours you spend running the less stressed you are likely to be.

I have yet to calculate the correlation for runners with less than six months experience. I will keep you posted and will make my full report available via the Runners’ World electronic newsletter when it is completed at the end of March.

Some participants emailed me to ask if I could supply them with an analysis of their individual responses to the questionnaire. This was not possible as the data collected was genuinely and completely anonymous. In the next issue of the electronic newsletter I will try to make the 20 key questions available to you with the score sheet so you can calculate your own Symptoms of Stress Score. I will also let you have average scores for runners of all age groups and levels of experience for you to compare.

Thank you again for your huge support for this research. I intend going on to study psychology at degree level and this initial research has already indicated some very fruitful areas for me to study in the future.

The overwhelming response means that this is one of the largest surveys ever into the link between physical exercise and stress.

Best Wishes,

Steve Mynard


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Thank you to everyone who completed the questionnaire promoted in the last issue of the RW electronic newsletter. An overwhelming 2110 people completed the questionnaire, which has given me a staggering amount of data for my research. The research I am engaged in looks at the relationship between running and stress i.e. if you run more are you less stressed.

I would be very interested to gather any personal annecdotes about stress and running. If anyone has had to give up work due to stress related illness I would be interested to hear if/how running has helped, for example.

Please use this forum to post any thoughts.

Thanks again.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 12:40

Stress and running ...

I resumed running 6 years ago after a break since my mid-20s. It was the millennium, I was approaching the big 4-0, my dad had terminal cancer, and my marriage was on the skids. I was also overweight and smoking heavily. A mid-life crisis and a half.

If I hadn't taken up the running I probably would have hit the bottle instead. From the above factors, the one that really sent the stress soaring was the divorce and the associated house move, custody fight etc. Running was a lifesaver. Long slow plods while planning my next move in the negotiation and legal process. Violent sprints and hill sessions when I was feeling homicidal and needed to blow off steam. And had the added benefit of enabling me to walk into the house, stinking and dripping with sweat ... kept the woman at bay for a while :-)

That's all in the past. I don't have a particularly stressful job, but I still like to have a blast after work and imagine my boss's face under every footfall :-)


Posted: 09/02/2006 at 13:39

Thank you for you contribution, Muttley.

I am 42 and have only been running for eight months. I find I get a sense of euphoria after a run - I feel great and if there is anything on my mind a good run usually puts it in perspective.

I notice there are a lot of 40+ men in the world of running. I wonder if other midlife men have taken up running during times of stress (?)

What about women - do you find running equals stress relief?

All contributors are welcome to use this forum to discuss the relationship between stress and running.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 15:51

Yep, it helps me. I took up running last April (aged 37) after getting so stressed in my job that I only slept an average of 4 hours a night for the preceding three months.

I have subsequently left that job,but I still find that running gives me clear headed thinking time and as SM says, it puts things in perspective. Very few sleepless nights now.

Hope this helps.
SR

Posted: 09/02/2006 at 15:59

Thanks SR.

Loss of sleep is a major symptom of stress related illness. According to restoration theories of sleep, if the body doesn't get enough sleep then certain neurotransmitters are not replenished and this can lead to clinical depression.

Any other runners who have found that running has helped them deal with sleep problems?
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 16:09

Helped me sleep and deal with a very traumatising relationship, 181/2 stone, teeth rotting on 40 a day with pains in my chest. Actually it prevented me from the "big sleep" I am certain. I would not have seen 40 otherwise:O-
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 16:13

Hi, HG, thanks for your contribution.

I'm interested in your comments about smoking and weight. When we are stressed it is common to adopt unhealthy lifestyles and it is often these indirect factors that lead to health problems such as cardiovascular disease.

Glad you made it past 40. I used to mock people who said 'Life begins etc' but now that I am two years the other side I have found that my life has become more focussed and purposeful.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 16:20

me too Steve- I just ate lots of cheesecake and smoked in front of telly -so glad i picked up Cliff Temples book and 52 week starter schedule having watched flm and seeing older folk than me running and going to library soon after:O)
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 16:23

Isn't it amazing that there is this hidden world of running that a lot of people only really discover when they hit forty!

I too watched the FLM a couple of years ago on the TV and thought, 'A lot of these guys look like me, what is it about this running lark?' It took me another year before I actually tried it though!

Any other runners out there who have found that running has really helped them turn the tables on stress?
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 16:29

Actually, I have a slightly different take on this.

For about 10 - 15 years I have been struggling with some un-diagnosed illness, which appears to be auto(?)inflammatory in nature.

Running has been absolutely centre stage in the comeback (aided by change of diet, anti-inflams, chinese herbs, and a whole lot of alternatives and physio stuff) from being unable to walk without sticks to being able to run (albeit v.v.v. slowly) marathons.

The illness, if that is what it is, is clearly exacerbated by stress. I get wiped out extremely easily. All my attempts to return to lecturing for example, have left me unable to walk again.

The role of running in all this seems to be complicated. Leaving aside the morale factor (which is definitely a huge factor) the effect of running is complicated - serving at the same time to destress (as a vent for internal anger) and as a highly controllable stressor.

The optimal pattern in using running as a means of, say, being able to return to work, seems to be the following.

Book a block of time to run following a day/morning whatever of work. Book time flat on back to rest. Without the rest, the running only exacerbates the bad effects of work related stress. With it, it is possible to work without stress building up over a period, which, in my case, ends up in relapse.

The nice thing about running as a stressor is that you can control it, by having hard or easy runs, and it does seem to build up some degree of stamina which is transferable to stressful situations.

The evidence is that for me at least, running without the rest to match is pretty destructive.

This is probably not what you wanted to hear, but if you are working in this field, I would be interested to talking to people who are working with recovery programmes for those with similar low-grade inflammatory illness (M.E. and the like). I think I have learned a lot.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 16:55

Thank you, Stickless, this is exactly what I want to hear.

Since I have taken up running I have become aware that there are distinct types of runners. Some people run for relaxation and restoration. Some people become very involved in competitive running and (I am speculating here) may well be more stressed than non-runners.

Your point about control is crucial. When we are able to take control over certain aspects of our lives research indicates that stress levels drop.

There are two types of stress. Distress is the negative side and eustress is the more positive side. A certain amount of stress is needed for a healthy and balanced life - if we were all completely relaxed and chilled out all the time nothing would ever get done!

It sounds to me that you have found the balance that works for you.

I am sure your account will bring encouragement to runners who are experiencing challenges in their lives.

Thank you again for your contribution.


Posted: 09/02/2006 at 17:10

Hi Steve,

Can I be a stats geek for one second....what was the p value associated with your r value of -0.34?

Cheers, and fabulous work by the way!

James
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 18:37

Hi, James, thanks for presenting me with a challenge.

I used Spearman's rho to calculate the correlation. I am not sure what the p value is. (I am currently studying at A Level but am very much looking forward to moving on to degree level).

I am off to my evening class in the next few minutes so will check this out with my tutor and respond just after 9.00 this evening.


Posted: 09/02/2006 at 18:43

Hi
I started on a beginners running plan, (starting by walking) about 1 year ago, after not doing any since my school days.I am running every week, 2 x 25 mins + a long run, which has now reached 50 mins .
I am more of a jogger rather than a runner as I do 1k in about 7 mins & managed just over 7k in my 50 min run, but I don't care as it made me feel really pleased with myself. Everytime I go out for a run, I come back home saying to myself, Yes I done it.
I am now 51.
I have noticed several changes about myself in this time. The main one is that I do not seem to suffer from migrains every month, which use to leave me in bed for 24/36 hours.
My stress levels at work have definately gone down & I tend to take things more in my stride.
Even though I wasn't overweight as such, I had a lot of excess flab which has now almost disappeard, I have now gone down to a size 8, my appetite has increased but I eat more sensibly.
I now feel good about myself.
I still have not managed to quit smoking, but maybe I will try again in the near future.
My family have really noticed a difference in me & my behaviour.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 19:08

wow some moving stories here. I feel that running, though not a panacea, does help in introducing gently, questions regarding our lifestyle and introduce physical changes for the better. I too have questioned and tried to tackle my smoking. I believe that the running spurred that contemplation on. Maybe more experiential and unquantifiable but a definite plus :O)
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 19:30

Wow.

You have a fantastic A-level project there - I wish my degree one was that good!

Best of luck with it.
Ceri
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 20:26

Steve, my stats is a bit rusty, but I don't think you can draw any significant conclusion from a correlation cofficient of -0.34.

You could also hypothesis that a high mileage runner's stess is unrelated to the mileage they run. Such runners don't run for heath (mental or physical) reasons. They run to seek success in the sport of their choice. For such driven individuals, an element of stress could be regarded as an essensial component of what makes them so competitive.

Perhaps the idea that running reduces stress is just another one of those canards put about by people who promote the sport - what do you reckon BR?
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:07


Steve,

Just to say that although running serves me as a stress buster, it has no positive help on the sleep front fo me. I suffer from serious sleep deprivation and whilst I run in excess of 30 mile a week, I still wake up at sat 5.00 a.m. when the alarm is set for 6.30 a.m. I am not a heavy drinker by the way.

Just wish I could sleep more as I am permanently tired.

HT
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:18

James. Just got back from psychology evening class. Turns out I did know what the p value was all along. Just didn't make the connection between p and probability. With a correlation of - 0.342 there is a less than 5% probability that the hypothesis is incorrect.

The hypothesis states: 'There will be a negative correlation stronger than - 0.306 between the average number of hours spent running each week and the participants score on a stress questionnaire.'
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:21

Thank you for your contribution, KOD.

This is exactly why I started this forum. Annecdotal evidence from runners is beginning to back up the findings of my research project - running has a positive influence in reducing stress levels.

Keep going - you are making tremendous progress.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:26

Hi HG, thanks for looking in on this forum again. The results of the questionnaire showed that smoking amongst runners is not at all uncommon. I expected it would be non-existence.

Any other smoking runners with tales to share?

Thanks Duck Girl.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:29

Hi, Tom, thanks for your contribution.

I was very pleased with a correlation of - 0.342, particularly as it was based on such a large and genuinely representative sample of participants. A lot of researchers would be quite jealous I think! While - 0,342 is only a moderate correlation it is much stronger than the correlation of + 0.118 found between the number of life events a person experiences and prevalence of stress related illness (Rahe et al. 1970) - and this is a key study often quoted.

Your point about competitive runners I do agree with. When I go on to degree level I am already considering looking at differences between recreational runners and competitive runners. I suspect that competitive runners are likely to be more stressed.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:37

Hi, HT and thanks for presenting some contradictory evidence.

Does the 'Hutton' part of your title refer to Hutton in Essex, by the way? Just happens to be where I come from originally.

I am interested (and concerned) to hear about your sleep problems. If you have been experiencing these difficulties on a nightly basis for more than three months I would seriously consider talking to your doctor. Sleep loss is a major contributory factor in clinical depression.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:44

Okay here I go.....started running a year ago (run walk programme) very very stressed, husband recovering from very serious bike/road accident and as self employed not earning a bean, daughter suffering post traumatic stress from a school holiday death, and my arthritis flared up and very swollen joints, work very stressful too and not sleeping. One year on with the running - joint swelling reduced significantly, virtually no pain in them and sleep like a log every night and subsequently feel more on top of my work and in control. So am very definitely in favour of running as a stress buster. :O)
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:48


Coz
Hi Steve

I found it really interesting reading about your research, and I am so impressed with the number of people you managed to recruit! What are you planning on doing with the results?
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:52

Thanks for your contribution PP,

Sounds like you have really been through the wars. Glad to hear that running is making a difference.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:54

Steve, interesting what you say about positive and negative stress.

My job's workload ebbs and flows. There are some days when it's manic, and although I'm fairly laid back and don't panic on stress I still find that a run will help clear the mind afterwards.

Conversely, after a really slack shift with little to do, I find a run perks me up.

It seems to work both ways.

Re the 40 schtick - I've noticed this too. I think the standard pattern is fit in our teens, begin to lose it in the 20s (nights out with the lads), lose it big time in the 30s (married, kids, home food, busy at work) and then realise at 40 or so that we're not only overweight and living a bad lifestyle but mortal too :-)

I've certainly noted that the biggest age category by far in the races I do is the men's vets.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 21:57

Hi, Coz, thanks for looking in.

The first thing I am planning on doing, now that I have proved my hypothesis, is writing the whole thing up and passing my A Level! The full report will be available through the RW electronic newsletter towards the end of March.

The next thing - and this is a very important point for the 2110 participants -
is that every piece of data will be used.

I only needed a representative sample of 60 participants to test my hypothesis because the analysis used at my college (Spearman's rho) is a relatively simple one for A Level students. The sheer number of responses meant that I was able to select a fully representative sample.

My next step is to approach Bath University Psychology Department (my nearest Uni) to ask for their help in processing the data in its entirity. This will give an even stronger conclusion.

After that I will begin work on some new research inspired by the findings of this project. The difference in stress levels between recreational runners and competitive runners is beginning to draw my attention.

Any thoughts on where you think I could turn my attention?
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 22:03

Hi, Muttley, good to see you back on this forum.

My life has followed the same pattern as yours and I have also noticed lots of overweight mid-life men (like me) in the handful of races I have done.

I think an important point about stress is that it is variable. We all have good days and bad days. I work for myself now and schedule my running so that I can give myself a late morning boost, which carries me through the rest of the day and into the evening with plenty of energy.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 22:08

Just realised that Duck Girl is the same Ceri who gave me lots of advice and encouragement when I was putting together the pilot study last November.

Thanks for all your help, Ceri.
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 22:09


Coz
Have you thought about getting it published? With a sample size that big you would probably have a good chance and I am sure one of the journals would be interested! It's also very topical - there seems to be lots about on heatlhy eating and mental heatlh so I am sure people would be interested in this. I'm guessing you have done literature searches etc.

Sorry - this has gone off the theme of your thread a bit! I will have a think when I am more awake tomorrow!
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 22:11

My experience is that variation is the best way to relieve stress.

I find that mileage alone will not help, but a mixture of long, slow and short, quick (and even medium length quick-ish) runs works for me. I also cross-train using cardio equipment in the gym, and a few weights to break the monotony.

If I do the same run over and over then I get stale and almost feel worse after the run than before, but after a short sharp (quick) run or interval session I get a real buzz, and feel that some stress related aches and pains (such as stiff shoulders & neck) are eased away.

I might just have a short attention span!

Looks to me as if you have a winner in this project, Steve. Congratulations on getting this far, and best of luck with your A-level results!
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 22:29

once again, wow!

Approaching Bath / wherever else you are heading for uni for help on the stats & write-up would be a very good idea.
With that sort of correlation on a sample that size then i'd be seriously thinking about journal publication (with that many results, you almost owe it to your participants to try to get the data gets published somewhere it can be used).

Bath's got a 5* (very top) Health Psych research group, & a good Sports Science dept, so it'd be a good place to go. Is that where you are applying to?
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 22:55

Thank you to Coz and Barry and Duck Girl for your contributions.

Variety is definitely the spice of life.

You're right, I do owe it to the participants to seriously look into journal publication. I never thought it would get this big, but am delighted it has.

Will keep you all posted as to progress.

Please keep your annecdotal contributions coming about the impact running has on stress reduction.

I'm off for a soak in the bath and a full eight hours sleep - catch up with you all in the morning.

Goodnight.

Posted: 09/02/2006 at 23:27

a bit of a different take again

i am horribly stessed for the first time in my life
been about 3 years now
running helps-up to a point
but i still drink like a fish and dont do food well
am very fat and a crap runner
for me, the social support
the entering races and the camaraderie has literally saved my life
i am a shit slow runner
I dont get runners high-i cant, too slow and its so hard each run
but i keep on doing those slow halves, maras, ultras
for the socail aspect
Posted: 09/02/2006 at 23:30

Morning everyone, hope you all slept well.

Hi, PH, welcome to this forum. The fact that you are moving faster than walking pace puts you well ahead of most of the population in the fitness stakes. The fact that you are doing marathons and ultras puts you well ahead of me, that's for sure.

I have been running for about seven months and have my first half-marathon coming up (Bath in March). I have run three 10K races and agree with you that the social support is a boost. I also run with the just-above-beginners in my local club once a week and find that having others to run with makes a run more enjoyable. I plod around my local streets a couple of times a week and do one long run (up to 11 miles now) once a week in the local countryside on my own. I enjoy the long run alone and find it quite meditative.

The point has been made several times on this forum that variety is important.

In terms of stress management social support is a very important factor in reducing stress.

Looking forward to another day of discussing the world of stress and running.

I am also going to call up Bath Uni today and see if I can get some advice on processing all 2110 questionnaires and get an even stronger conclusion to my research.
Posted: 10/02/2006 at 08:25


Morning Steve,

Yes I live in Hutton, Essex.

Regarding sleep, I would say that my problems have been over my complete lifetime. Not totally bad over 50 plus years but my mother died in October 2005 and the stress of job and modern life all come into the equation.

Doubt that I am clinically depressed but my cousin is and he has only approx. a week
left to live due to cancer.

Best wishes,

Gerald

Posted: 10/02/2006 at 09:15

Got some good work there Steve -you can also suggest questions for "further research" in your write up -going on what is here.

good luck
Posted: 10/02/2006 at 09:19

I took up running at 45 around 2 1/2 yrs ago. A woman who is now a very good friend was going through a bad time at work and I helped her through it, it was a very traumatic experience all round that required great personal courage. The upside was that she is a former olympic athlete but hadnt run for a while and as a stress buster she encouraged me to run and started running again herself (albeit slower than when she was sprinting!).

In terms of stress the running helped me relax and also whilst out there it was a good opportunity to lose yourself in the run and contemplate things that used to keep me awake during the night. I found Ii was able to work things out whilst running-which made the run much easier.

I'm still running now and am still encouraged by my friend who's just started a personal training business. We've both benefitted by running -time on your feet gives you time to think.
Posted: 10/02/2006 at 09:23

Morning Gerald,

I grew up on the Long Ridings estate and went to Shenfield Comprehensive before leaving Essex 25 years ago. Still go back fairly regulary.

Sorry to hear about your mother and your cousin.

Several people have commented on sleep on this forum. The results of my questionnaire would allow me to investigate the specific statements, 'I often wake in the night troubled with unresolved thoughts', 'I fall asleep easily when I go to bed' and 'I need to take medication to help me sleep'. Maybe something for future work.

I recently completed a unit on sleep as part of my psychology studies. I think we all know sleep is important, but I hadn't realised just how crucial it is to long term health.

Look after yourself,

Steve


Posted: 10/02/2006 at 09:29

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