Late last year my 20-year-old daughter signed up to take part in a fitness programme called “Couch to 5K” — where a group of novice runners, many not having run since school, meet once a week and slowly work their way towards the unimaginable goal of running for five kilometres.
Somehow the organiser of this escapade — my other half — thought it might be a good idea if I did it too, and signed me up. I’m glad she did.
Although I had been a somewhat reluctant runner in the past, parenthood, work, and a thousand other excuses caused me to do very little physical exercise for the better part of twenty years. Sure, I cycled to work (or at least I did before COVID appeared), but cycling to work is more an exercise in strategic freewheeling than engaging in any sort of fitness programme.
I will admit that running was also attractive to me for more practical reasons — not only is it one of the least costly forms of exercise (my running shoes were the cheapest I could find at Amazon) — it’s also one of the most accessible. You can literally scrape yourself out of bed, pull shorts and some running shoes on, step out of the door, and go.
Over the weeks taking part in the course and in the months that followed, I discovered several significant, tangible health benefits that not only helped me at home but also at work. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that I began working from home in April of last year, and have been doing so ever since.
While it is tempting to roll out of bed, shuffle downstairs in my pyjamas, and switch the computer on to begin work, a voice in my head now reminds me how much better I will feel if I get off my backside.
To help others thinking about starting running, I have listed below a few of the benefits I have experienced during the last year — that have improved my “life in lockdown” the most markedly.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of running — your stamina will improve very quickly — mine did — which has a direct effect on how long you can concentrate during the day. Your brain uses far more energy than any other part of your body, so training your body to provide more energy is a simple enough “hack”.
Many people follow planned programmes when starting out, such as the “Couch to 5K” that I did. Although the first few runs may be a struggle, you will quickly see results, and the progress acts as a wonderful incentive to keep going.
Several years ago I read an observation from a fitness instructor that I’ve never forgotten. While commenting on their diet, they admitted that because of their job — and the amount of fuel their body needed to do that job — they got to almost eat whatever they wanted.
What does this mean for you and me? If you like the kinds of foods that weight-loss diets steer clear of — potatoes, bread, and pasta — you can start smiling, because they’re back on the menu. All those carbohydrates are excellent fuel for running and help recovery too.
I have to admit this was a surprise when I started running and is somewhat counter-intuitive. You might think that sweating while working out will result in terrible skin — and you would be wrong. Working out actually releases dermcidin (I read about it) — an anti-microbial peptide. It means the more you sweat while working out, the more healthy your skin becomes. Who knew?
Another counter-intuitive one. You might think that running would increase your blood pressure, and you would be right — but over time, it lowers both your resting and active blood pressure. Of course, you need to start out slowly if your fitness level is low, but over time the results will be remarkable.
My mother-in-law has been a regular runner for many years and has to specifically mention it when visiting doctors to reassure worried looks when doing blood pressure tests.
A study in 2019 discovered that high impact exercise increases the presence of “bone formation markers” — signs that your bones are strengthening themselves. I suppose it makes sense if you think about it — in the same way that muscles tear down and re-build, bones do the same thing — just much more slowly.
If you’re feeling down or fatigued for whatever reason, running is an excellent remedy. The physical exercise releases endorphins from your brain — the magical mood-altering chemicals that we interpret as pleasure and happiness. Sure, you might feel like hell while out running — especially during your first few runs — but the rush afterwards makes it more than worth it.
During the first runs I did with the “Couch to 5K” group, the minutes after the completion of each session were massively positive — with the entire group leaving with waves and smiles — no matter how tired they might have seemed minutes earlier.
Although subtle, running engages your mid-section and improves your core muscles — which naturally improves posture, and protects against the secondary effects of bad posture, such as headaches, and back-ache. You only have to talk to anybody that has experienced a bad back to know how debilitating it can be — both physically, and mentally.
It stands to reason that if you burn your body’s supply of fuel during the day, you will sleep better. Your body will crave sleep because it will need it to recover — especially in the early weeks. Your muscles and tendons will need time to repair and rebuild in-between runs — and sleep is the natural “system down” mechanism built into your body.
Laying off the coffee in the evening helps too — allowing your body to shut down, instead of hacking its chemistry to keep you awake for the movie, TV show, book, or video game you might have stayed up until 2am watching, reading, or playing.
While there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence regarding the stress-relieving symptoms of running — mostly tied to breathing and rhythm — there are some significant scientifically measurable effects too.
Strenuous physical exercise causes your body to reduce the production of hormones such as cortisol, which are commonly linked with stress. Combined with endorphin production, you can see how physical exercise can commonly unlock significant (positive) mood changes.
I would point towards my experiences running with a beginners group again — the difference in mood between those arriving for a training session, and those leaving only an hour later was often significant.
No matter where you are in your running journey, the knowledge that you have done something positive about your health is powerful. You don’t need to advertise it on social media, or any of the fitness tracking apps either — the knowledge that you are doing something for yourself will pay dividends. The first time you tell somebody you can’t make it to somewhere because you’re going for a run will be a proud moment.
I think one of the most significant barriers to starting out on my running journey was the fear that I would look bad — and while that fear kept me running during the early weeks, it rapidly gave way to the satisfaction that I was doing something to help myself, and that it was working. I was getting better at it, week on week.
It turns out progress is addictive.
I started to care less about what people might think, and more about what I was doing, and why. I would even go so far as saying the mental health benefits have been more significant than the physical benefits. I now look forward to the days I run, and miss it if I can’t make it for whatever reason.