‘Stride Out’: the athletic drive helping Sheffield tackle mental health

Medical experts are starting to believe that something as simple as going for a run can help to alleviate mental health conditions. Runners might not be surprised to hear this, but are you?

With England Athletics enlisting 200 Mental Health Ambassadors across the country, Faith Ridler investigates the advantages of promoting exercise as therapy.

“When she runs she’s a different person. It’s like she doesn’t struggle with any severe mental health issues at all,” Gay Fletcher says, reflecting on a student whose obsessive-compulsive disorder became manageable when she ran.

“If you have a conversation with her in a room on your own her anxiety is debilitating. She’ll stand in the corner of a room because she can’t stand on a carpet in case she steps on a certain colour.

“But when she runs, it’s like that doesn’t even come into her mind.”

Gay is one of 200 Mental Health Ambassadors enlisted by England Athletics to promote physical activity as a form of therapy in 144 running clubs across the country.

Most people with mental health conditions are treated with medication and therapy. An NHS waiting list for this is currently pushing six months.

Over time, the right medication can improve your mental health by relieving symptoms of clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) and anxiety.

But for some, the side-effects of certain medications outweigh the benefits. The NHS Choices website admits that medication, including antidepressants, can cause discomfort at first, heightening anxiety, insomnia, and even causing nausea in patients.

In fact, research conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has revealed that after a three-month course of antidepressants, only between 50 and 65% of people with depression experience an improved mental state.

The reality is that one in four people in the UK struggle with their mental health each year, and of those, one in fifteen attempt suicide at some point in their life.

With such a large percentage of our population experiencing mental distress each year, a one-size-fits-all prescription is not practical.

As a run leader and one of two Mental Health Ambassadors for Stride Out — a women-only running club based in Sheffield — Gay has come into contact with women struggling with a plethora of conditions.

“We’ve got a few women who deal with confidence issues that have then led to anxiety conditions and I think they were very reluctant to join a running club because their confidence was so low.”

“Slowly they’ve formed friendships in the group, almost like running buddies, and that has really helped with their confidence. They’ve come out of their shell and even entered races.”

“I tend to try just to make them feel welcome and wanted and important and to just reassure them that it might seem like a massive ordeal to get their trainers on and come out for a run, but once they’re out those natural endorphins are going to kick in and It’s going give them a little bit of happiness.”

She believes that being part of a running club can have a profound effect on your mental well-being, even if it’s just to offer companionship.

She said: “Without a doubt, it’s an emotional therapy. I think there’s so much out there as far as treatments, medication and CBT go, but just being listened to or being made to feel welcome and important can be vital.

“If you run in a group, you can talk and listen to other people and realise that other people also have these anxieties and issues.”

Mental Health Ambassadors like Gay play a significant part in highlighting that there are alternative treatments to counselling and medication.

According to the NHS, regular exercise is a mood booster, and a healthy adult should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.

Doctors in the UK can prescribe exercise as a course of action for patients tackling mental health conditions.

But although they can, a recent report from the Mental Health Foundation claims exercise treatment is somewhat of an afterthought.

According to their research, only 5% of GPs would refer to a supervised programme of exercise as one of their three most common treatment responses to mild or moderate depression.

This compares to 92% who would prescribe antidepressants.

When asked which treatment they would take if they became depressed themselves, 1% of doctors would turn to exercise as their first treatment choice, and 42% would place it in their top three.

This lacklustre response from medical professionals is part of what makes the Mental Health Ambassador scheme such a crucial move forward.

Gay recognises that her work with Stride Out has come at a time when this method of therapy has had a great deal of exposure.

She said: “This scheme has come just at the right time. There’s been a lot of national press about the limited support options available for people dealing with mental health issues in the NHS.

“In addition to the BBC’s Mind Over Marathon documentary, I think everything is accumulating and working at the right time.”

“Running doesn’t cost any money and there are no restrictions. It’s very much you being in the fresh air, feeling the wind on your face, talking if you need to talk, and I think that freedom is advantageous.”