Health November 2015

“Do you work out?”

The other day I ran into a friend who is a keen amateur cyclist. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months, and I know he is busy, so I asked him if he was getting out regularly on his bike.

He told me he hasn’t been able to for quite as long as usual—he has two children—but said, “If I didn’t make time for cycling, I’d go nuts. It’s my stress-buster”.

That rang a chord with me. I started running 38 years ago, in my first year of high school, and I haven’t stopped since. I competed in two World Championships, and was unlucky to miss qualifying for an Olympic Games, so runners who know something of my past often say, when I suggest going for a run, “Oh, you don’t want to run with me. I’m too slow”.

Actually, I do want to run with you. My competitive days are long over. I still enter races, but my highest hope is an age group win, and I run for fitness and fun much more than for trophies—and free shoes, which I do miss.

This month, I will pace my seven-year-old daughter and my son’s best friend, aged 10, in a 3km fun run. And earlier this year, I was thrilled to pace my son, then aged nine, through his 5km debut—in the TELL Walk/Runathon—which he completed in less than 25 minutes. He crossed the line smiling, which should be mandatory for a nine-year-old engaged in sport.

The health benefits of regular exercise are well known. They include a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, type-two diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer and osteoarthritis.

What is less well known is that people who exercise regularly also enjoy mental health benefits including a 30% lower risk of depression and up to a 30% lower risk of dementia. Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, improving self-esteem and cognitive function, and alleviating symptoms of social withdrawal.

In addition, exercising regularly is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and improve concentration, motivation, memory and mood. Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention.

A few years ago writer Haruki Murakami published a book about his interest in long-distance running, titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. For me, I talk about how great it is to get away from my computer, phone and email—and everything else.

I don’t listen to music or podcasts when I run; I just lace up my shoes, strap on my GPS watch (a new toy aimed at helping me get out on days when I don’t feel very motivated), and head out for 7km, 17km or 27km runs, during which I can be alone with my thoughts.

You don’t have to be a runner or cyclist, of course, to enjoy the stress-busting benefits of exercise. You can swim, hike, ski, surf, do yoga or work out in a gym. What is important is changing the scenery and your thought processes.