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In the aftermath of the Great Bristol Half, Ben McCall-Myers examines the positive effects of exercise on both body and mind.

Immediately after the half marathon of September 17th, there was a great buzz around the city of Bristol. People seemed inspired, upbeat and most importantly, happy.

Over ten thousand had turned up for the 13.1 mile run and, in spite of some agonising facial expressions leading up to it, at the finish line it was smiles all round. This community of runners had liberated themselves through completing such a gruelling and impressive distance, as their pride spilled over to infect onlooking strangers with joy and admiration.

Husband wife….emotional hug at the end of a tough #greatbristolhalf #bristolhalfmarathon #BristolHalf

A post shared by Sean Underwood (@seanundies) on

It is certainly no coincidence that the half marathon produced such a positive and exuberant atmosphere. Science has proved that exercise will stimulate the production of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine; all feel-good hormones that contribute to a positive state of mind. Despite the taxing physical nature of the run, the brain works to reward the body for its troubles. Biologically, it’s a win-win situation.

Furthering the atmosphere of optimism was the fact so many people had run, not just to challenge themselves, but for great charitable causes. From a man who ran the whole thing dressed as an elephant to two women who tied themselves together and ran it as a three legged race, there were some jovial efforts to raise money for their respective charities.

Epigram’s very own film editor, Charlie Gearon, was one of these people. He managed to raise £250 for Bristol Mind, a charity that focuses on ensuring everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets the support and respect they deserve. Impressively, he also managed to defy the student stereotype, as he quit smoking and avoided alcohol for the month leading up to the race, honouring a training regime that led him to a completion time of one hour and 51 minutes.

Mental health seems to be an issue affecting more and more students. A recent survey, entitled ‘Not By Degrees’, reports that a whopping 19 per cent of 16-24 year olds experience a mental health condition; that’s almost one in every five. This figure has risen from 15 per cent back in 2003. Whether it’s our binge drinking culture, our craving to be ‘liked’ (both on social media and in reality), or just more of a willingness to confront these issues, there has been an undeniable rise in mental health issues adversely affecting young adults.

I see an intrinsic link between running and mental health. Whenever I’m feeling anxious or nervous about something, I run as a kind of therapy.

To get a sense of the scale of this problem, it’s enlightening to note that in 2015/16, 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students disclosed a mental health condition. This has increased five-fold since 2006/07 and such statistics further emphasise that mental health is a growing problem in our increasingly high-pressure society. It’s important that those who are brave enough to discuss their issues get the care they need and we find strategies to combat mental health problems and maintain positive mind-sets.

When asked why he chose Mind specifically, Charlie responded ‘I see an intrinsic link between running and mental health. Whenever I’m feeling anxious or nervous about something, I run as a kind of therapy.’ Certainly, if the atmosphere at the finish line was anything to go by, there is weight to this concept of running as therapy. Charlie reminisced on five different children offering him jelly babies, and complete strangers encouraging him to keep going. The marathon, as sport so often does, brought people together.

Film Editor, Charlie, beaming at the finish line.

There’s more to this ‘therapy’ than just the atmosphere of the marathon though. Charlie elaborated that running ‘forces you to focus on your breathing and empties your mind in an almost meditative fashion’. In this respect, running offers escapism. While you’re out there, all you focus on is making that next step, pushing yourself that little bit harder. Your problems disintegrate into the cool breeze and your primary concern becomes sustaining your target pace. Just for a little while, all of life’s difficulties melt into insignificance.

Evidence supports this idea of running as a form of therapy. The Bristol SU Annual Survey asked students ‘what has helped to support your wellbeing at University?’ and 13 per cent of respondents noted sport or exercise in their response. As well as the aforementioned biological benefits, being part of a wider sporting family instils a strong sense of belonging in those who take part. It’s a way to keep fit, it’s a way to make friends and vitally, it’s a way to have fun.

Breathe in the fresh air. Take in your surroundings. I can almost guarantee you’ll feel better by the end of it.

Ultimately then, sport, exercise and running, most specifically, can only be seen as beneficial methods of coping with life’s inevitable unpleasantness. If you’re ever feeling down about something, stick on your trainers and go for a run. Breathe in the fresh air. Take in your surroundings. I can almost guarantee you’ll feel better by the end of it and although your problems won’t just go away, it will help you to process them in a productive and healthy manner.


Did you take part in the Half Marathon? Share your experience below.

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