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“Why running is such a powerful tool for mental health”

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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“You realise your body can do something you didn’t know it could before, which is so empowering.”

Last April, Bryony Gordon and Jada Sezer ran the London Marathon – wearing nothing but their trainers and their underwear.

It might sound like an odd thing to do, but the pair were intent on making an important point about our bodies and how we view them. Namely, they wanted to encourage us to stop worrying about what they look like, and start embracing them for all the amazing things that they can do; a mission the pair are now set to continue.

“It’s a miracle that we’re all here, that we’re alive and our hearts are beating. We should be celebrating that, rather than trying to look a certain way to please the male gaze,” Gordon told Stylist’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Smosarski, while on stage in her underwear at Stylist Live.

“We’ve agreed to do it again next year, but with a group of women who inspire us and stand for the morals and values that we speak about, while triumphing the diversity that we care about.”

“This is not about sexuality, it’s the opposite. It’s about showing the body as more than something a man can have sex with,” Gordon added. “I can have a child, I can run, I can do lots of different things.”

But celebrating body positivity isn’t the only gain to have come out of the experience; both Gordon and Sezer also spoke about the mental health benefits they had discovered through running.

“For me, it’s about knowing this is something I can control,” Sezer said. “One day my partner couldn’t join me on our usual run, and I stood with one foot out of the door and one foot inside it, unsure about whether I really wanted to go. But I left the house and did my first run on my own, and I thought, this is great. I feel so much more confident knowing that this is something I can do.”

Gordon, who has written frequently about mental health in the past, including in her books, also spoke about the power of running for mental health.

“When you have a mental illness, running can be incredibly helpful, even if just for the structure it gives your time,” she explained.

“Every weekend you realise your body can do something you didn’t know it could before, which is so empowering.”

“When you have a mental illness, running can be incredibly helpful”

Gordon also ran the marathon last year, for mental health charity Heads Together, and “really enjoyed” the experience. Now 38, she said her whole approach to running has changed since she was in her twenties, when she would “exercise out of self-loathing”.

“I wanted to look a different way, but the problem with that is that every time you look in the mirror, there you are. It’s always going to be you in the reflection,” she explained. “If everything you do is rooted in self-loathing, then nothing will ever change.”

“Be kind to yourself,” she added. “Reframe the conversation in your head; if a friend said some of the things to you that you say to yourself, you wouldn’t be friends with them anymore.”

Aside from exercise, Sezer also advised anyone struggling with their mental health to find their “anchors” – things that take you away from feeling like you’re not worthy.

“I love art and getting lost in my paintings,” she said. “Find something you control that no one can take away from you, whether it’s yoga or meditation or anything else.

“Finding my anchors has been my go-to during times when I’ve felt crap.”

“I don’t want self-loathing to be the norm for women anymore,” Gordon added. “Our default setting is to dislike ourselves, and no one can take a compliment. But I want that to change.”

Stylist Live, our festival of inspiration, is running from 9-11 November at London Olympia. You can find out more, and buy tickets, here

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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