The Great Escape: Beating Stress (Preview)

Stress. Anxiety. Pressure. Tension. Find out how you can use running to leave them behind - literally (non-subscriber preview)


Posted: 29 October 2008
by Matt Barbour

"I felt like I had no release, no safety valve, at any point from waking to going to bed. I wasn't a pleasant person to be around." Managing the Cancer Centre at one of London's biggest hospitals was starting to take its toll on Claire Levermore, 33.

Regularly working 14-hour days, there was the added emotional burden of seeing people suffering with a serious disease day-in, day-out. Claire knew she had to do something to cope with the pressure, and remembered the enjoyment she got from an activity she had enjoyed as a girl but since lost touch with.

"I love my job, but it was just very demanding at times. When it got to a point where it was too much, I turned to running with the Serpentine Club. I knew I was missing it."

The results? "Two years on, not only am I simply a happier, healthier person, but I've also progressed in my career, having been made Directorate General Manager of Neurosciences across three major hospitals with a £50 million budget."

Doctor’s orders

Whatever the reason for your running regime, one thing's for sure – running can be as good for the mind as it is for the body. "Running is one of the most effective treatments for stress, and in many cases has been proven to be as – if not more – effective than medication," explains Neil Shah, psychotherapist and director of the Stress Management Society (stress.org.uk).

"All too often people look for a cure for stress once the horse has bolted, when it's much healthier to develop ways to deal with stress on a day-to-day level before it gets to that stage," says Shah. "Running is ideal because it's so accessible and achievable – and the mountain of scientific evidence pointing towards its stress-busting properties is growing by the day."

Runner's high - fact or fiction?

Perhaps the most obvious mental boost is the infamous ‘runner's high', now proven by German researchers to be more than a rather pleasant figment of your imagination. University of Bonn neurologists visualised endorphins in the brains of 10 volunteers before and after a two-hour run.

Comparing the pre- and post-run scans, they found evidence of more opiate binding of the happy hormone in the frontal and limbic regions of the brain, areas known to be involved in emotional processing and stress. "There's a direct link between feelings of well-being and running, and for the first time this study proves the physiological mechanism behind that," explains study coordinator Professor Henning Boecker.

The mind-body connection doesn't stop there; stress is a subjective interpretation of events, so while you might attack your computer for crashing, others simply put it down to experience. "Your brain's ability to process stimuli and order them is key to understanding what triggers stress, and in turn helps deal with the cause," explains Shah.

Give a little, get a lot

Researchers from Illinois University in the USA found that an improvement of only five per cent in cardio-respiratory fitness from running led to an improvement of up to 15 per cent in mental tests and ability to deal with the causes of stress. Running actually builds new brain cells in the hippocampus, the region responsible for memory, which deteriorates from the age of 30.

"It boosts blood flow – and in turn, oxygen – to your brain, which fires and regenerates receptors, explaining how exercise helps ward off Alzheimer's," says study author Professor Arthur Kramer. "There's also the rhythmical, relaxing nature of the exercise, which helps different elements of the brain connect better."

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