Following the breakdown of her marriage and a mental health crisis, Bella Mackie turned to running – and she hasn’t looked back since. Here, she talks about the power of exercise for boosting our mental health, and offers her advice on getting started.
It’s January and the gyms are packed. The streets are overflowing with runners and the parks are full of people briskly walking up hills.
This long, bleak month turns most of us into exercise fiends, determined to shake off December’s excess and cheer ourselves up – hard to do with so little sunlight to warm our bones. And yet despite these intentions, every year we see the gyms emptying out and the parks returned to their regular dog walkers by the time February swings into view.
Doing something again and again while expecting a different result is a famous, if not strictly accurate, definition of madness. Many of us start the new year with the best will in the world, and end it struggling to remember where the hell our trainers actually are. And partly because of this, and partly because we’re British, so much of the language around exercise is full of failure and self-deprecation. At worst, it’s disdainful. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
I was staunchly anti-exercise until I hit the age of 30. No running, no walking, no to anything which might make my dormant muscles ache or give me a stitch. I used to think people who enjoyed moving their bodies were earnest, humourless and freakishly healthy. I was disdainful of it all, while at the same time creating a narrative in my head that I wasn’t built for exercise, couldn’t do it, shouldn’t try. And that might have been that, had my first marriage not broken down and my longstanding mental health problems finally spiralled out of control.
In the midst of this miserable period, I decided I wanted to push my body a bit, if only to break out of my head. Running seemed like the easiest option. I could do it in the dark, making me near-invisible, and I could try it out without worrying about kit, or form, or expense. I started slowly, without making any big promises to myself about races or marathons. Instead, I did just a few minutes at a time, never pushing myself much, just building it up gently.
Once I’d done a few weeks of this, I downloaded the Couch to 5k app and worked up to the eventual goal of running 5km without stopping. Achieving that made me feel like I could fly. Finishing the programme could have been the end of that strange experiment, were it not for the fact that I felt better than I had done in years - both mentally and physically.
When you realise how effective exercise is at calming your busy brain, or lifting your mood a little, it becomes hard to see it in the abstract anymore. I realised how blinkered I’d been to swear off exercise, and belittle those who did it. I slowly began to realise that I needed to incorporate it into my life in a way that could be both sustainable and realistic.
Not only do we tell ourselves that we’re not built for exercise, we also tend to give it up if (usually when) we find it difficult. So many people tell me that running is too hard, or it makes their legs burn, or it gives them painful stitches. Even worse, they expect to be able to runs miles within weeks, and chalk themselves up as failures if they don’t succeed.
As this January nears its end, we all need a change of mindset about exercise. We need to emphasis the ‘body beautiful’ movement less, and work harder to understand how closely linked our mental and physical spaces are to each other. Too often in the modern world we see our mind and body as almost separate entities, when they actually impact on each other hugely.
A brilliant way to see this in action is with Mind’s Red January initiative. This year’s initiative is nearly over, but the lessons it seeks to promote are timeless. Set up by Hannah Beecham after she watched her mum struggle with depression and gain some relief from exercise, the movement encourages us to try doing something physical every day, be that 15 minutes of walking or 10 minutes swimming. Last year, 87% of participants said they felt noticeably better after they’d completed the month.
I love this message, because it’s incredibly inclusive and doesn’t expect Olympian efforts off the bat. Instead, it offers achievable aims and helps you connect your mind and body to each other. The New Years resolution tradition asks too much from us, demanding that we’ll have six packs and better sleep and the ability to bench press small children. This approach is doomed to fail.
Instead, adopt the Red January attitude and try to fit a small amount of activity into your everyday life. Do five minutes of star jumps to wake you up. Run up the office stairs when you feel sluggish. Walk for 30 minutes in your lunch break. Go swimming with a friend. If you incorporate activity like this, and make it a regular part of life, you’ll be less likely to see it as a challenge too far, or try and set yourself impossible goals and face the resulting inevitable disappointment.
I try to run every day now, a routine built up over five years of learning how long my body likes to run for and how many times a week helps me maintain my mood. I realised early on that in order for me to keep going regularly, I had to stop worrying about pace or distance too much. For that reason, I’m probably not going to do any marathons or races – it’s more important that I do it long term than beat my personal best.
I ran on my wedding day last year. I ran on Christmas Day. Once you find the exercise you enjoy, and notice what it’s doing for your mental health, you’ll find it much easier to keep up the commitment. Cast around for the right exercise for you and make sure you enjoy it. That way, come next December, you’ll know full well where your trainers are and you can sack off the unhelpful resolutions once and for all.
Images: Getty, Unsplash
Jog On: How Running Saved My Life by Bella Mackie is available to buy now