Five years ago I decided that I needed to do something about my fitness. I had been heavily into martial arts whilst I was at University but since leaving and getting a job in a different area, I became overworked and unfit due to lack of time and a place to continue training.
I knew that I needed to get back in shape physically but I didn’t really believe all the hype attached to exercise and mental wellbeing. I had been diagnosed with the severe mental illness of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD) a few years previously and was pretty resigned to the fact that my mental health would always be worse than most’s.
Personality disorders are a form of complex, enduring mental illness. Sufferers experience problems with how they think, behave or function towards themselves and others, which affect different aspects of their life over a long period of time. For me, EUPD means I have very rapid-cycling moods and that I experience emotions far more intensely than other people. It also means I have very low self-esteem and can experience extreme anxiety. How was exercise going to help me with all that? I had spent a long time in various therapies over the years and failed to see how something as simple as running could have any real effect.
Sceptical about the mental side of things, I still decided to take on the challenge of the NHS Couch to 5K podcast in order to improve my physical fitness. It was hard! I had never run before and I remember saying after my first walk/run session that if I ever got to a stage where I could run 5K straight then I’d eat my hat!
Nevertheless, I kept at it and followed the programme of running three times a week, gradually increasing my endurance and stamina. Within 8 weeks I was able to run for 35 minutes non-stop and signed up for my local Race for Life 5K as a goal to meet a few weeks later.
Finishing that race was one of the best feelings I have experienced and it showed me that not only had my physical health improved since starting running but it had really had an impact on my mental health too. The fact that I was able to run a respectable distance just a few months after starting my new hobby did wonders for my self-esteem and I realised that having running to take part in regularly was actually helping to stabilise my moods.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse with my mental health not long afterwards due to unforeseen circumstances and I spent a lot of time in and out of hospital, which meant I couldn’t keep up my running.
However, I recently celebrated my first complete spell of 12 months out of hospital in four years and have taken up my long missed hobby again. I might not run far - 5 or 6km is still my average distance at the moment but running twice or three times a week really helps me. I find I sleep better when I run regularly and my moods are more stable (which is a real victory when you have EUPD). I also find that running has helped ease my generalised anxiety and my self-esteem still benefits as I always get a post-run sense of achievement. In addition, I love the fact that I can take my dog with me - she has also been a key part of my recovery and running with her is a real bonding experience!
For someone who was very sceptical about the mental health benefits of exercise, I am amazed what a positive impact running can have on wellbeing and I am completely converted!
Since I have been out of hospital I have become a mental health advocate and am really trying to tackle the stigma surrounding it, which is why I will be proudly wearing my Miles for Mind shirt during my runs towards the event throughout May. Mental Health matters to everyone, whether you have a mental illness or not and we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about it.
I think people often think you have to be super fit and running marathons for it to ‘count’ as running but I want to help get the message out there that even a 30 minute run really can benefit your health - mentally and physically
Huge thanks to Jo for sharing her story. If you'd like to share yours and inspire others to do the same then drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org