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Balega running socks Impi Ambassador Tyler Byrd running in a race
The Link Between Running and Mental Health During the COVID Pandemic

The COVID pandemic has had an incredible impact on the daily lives of individuals as we have seen a significant shift in our routines. 

You may feel overwhelmed by the personal impacts of the current crisis. The number one thing I can stress about staying mentally and emotionally well during these uncertain times is to validate and acknowledge the true weight of our emotions. 

Much of this post is about perspective and shifting that perspective in scientifically researched methods that lead to greater emotional and mental well-being. I do not seek to gloss over the fact that the true hardship of losing a job, losing a business, or losing a loved one is an immensely difficult emotional experience. 

The best way I could think of shifting perspective with all of the current media surrounding COVID is to create an acrostic poem to rethink how we view the word itself. Hopefully, this will help you see a new way of viewing daily life after this reading.  

C - Control

O – Opportunity 

V – Value 

I - Interaction

D – Decompression



Control
Humans, by nature, we tend to be control freaks — myself included. When a person believes they have total control over their actions, it allows them to execute confidently. As a mental health therapist, I seek to help people understand that we can control only our actions. We have minimal control over our thoughts and even less control over our emotions.

Action requires us to generate activity, which we cannot do without consent from ourselves. Thought can often derive from our subconscious or be prompted by our environment. Once we are aware of thought, we are able to decide if we listen to that thought or try to change it. Feelings come and go as they please. Our best bet with feelings is to learn ways to manage them. 

During a time of extreme uncertainty and change, the first action towards mental health is to establish our true understanding of control. Identify the actions that we are able to generate activity towards. This is where engagement in physical activity has come into play. Society is seeing a large shift in exercise, fitness and outdoor adventures. Many of you have seen the influx of daily walkers and runners in your neighborhood. Furthermore, the health benefits are far beyond generating a sense of control over your action. Engagement in physical activity demonstrates a well-researched link to decrease in anxious and depressive symptoms (Rebar, et al., 2015).

 

Man running during Covid 19 pandemic

 

Opportunity
This is a challenging word to portray during a time of such devastation. Jobs are lost, relationships are more distant, school is out, lives have been lost and there is a real emotional heartbreak for all of those instances. I do not want to neglect that those are all incredible heavy situations. And amidst every crisis, setback and devastation, I truly believe we can find opportunity. 

Time, effort, and communication are the three most important qualities of daily life when it comes to balancing the many life roles we embody as people. These three aspects have all taken a drastic change recently. We are now forced into viewing time in a new way. Interestingly, the quarantine has challenged us to figure out how to manage our time in ways we have never imagined. The present is the only time in which we have any semblance of control. In fact, most emotional response comes from an analysis of the past or concern about the future. 

Physical activity, such as running or biking, allows for a person to become fully embraced in the moment. Sure, the full embrace may include gasping for air as you run up a hill or feeling the contraction of your leg muscles as you pedal a bike, and yet it provides an opportunity to control your action towards improving your health. The present only allows time for action, which is where mindfulness flows. Mindfulness activities can also include deep breathing practice, meditation and yoga — and these activities can provide mindful focus within minutes. 

Especially during these unusual times, we must seek to find the things worth putting effort towards. What is it about exercise that has been deemed the activity that many are identifying as an opportunity during pandemic times? Support, community and accessibility are the three strongest factors. Take a scroll down Instagram lane or pull-up in front of Balega’s Facebook Live workout studio. You will find a plethora of supportive, uplifting individuals cheering you on virtually. Additionally, the return on investment of engagement in physical activity in relation to happiness ratings is quite profitable (Seligman, 2002).

Value
This is perhaps the most important word to carry you through this time of stress. Perspective is crucial during times of extreme change. Whether it is a pandemic, a natural disaster, or another intense hardship, finding value in what we control is vital to mental health. Aside from pandemic times, once our basic needs are met, the three things that motivate us most are: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (Kotler, 2015).

Autonomy (having full control to direct your own life), mastery (the opportunity to learn, explore and be creative) and purpose (having a desire to matter or contribute to the world) are all things that can be found through engagement in physical activity. One of the most common themes among those who remain resilient through difficult times is shifting focus to ways in which we can provide value. Even more recently, we have seen countless individuals shift their daily run to a distance of 2.23 miles to generate a profound sense of purpose in their exercise. 

Value does not have to be finding the purpose of life or your calling in life; it can be as simple as finding small tasks that help others or engaging in the 30 minutes of physical activity that used to get pushed aside for other commitments. 

Interaction
Humans are social creatures. We know from research that social interaction and positive social support correlate with happiness at a higher rate than money, good grades, a great job or being attractive (Seligman, 2002). You heard that right; the haircut dilemma will not impact your happiness as drastically as we think it might, or maybe as much as I think it might. Being stuck at home and restricted from being close to peers, loved ones and entertainment downright sucks. Let me pose yet another perspective though — of all the times in human history, is there any better time to remain connected than now? Thirty years ago, we would not only not be able to (virtually) see peers and extended family, we wouldn’t even be able to talk to them. 

We now have the ability to complete virtual runs, virtually ride our bike through other countries, lead virtual group workouts and engage in virtual mental health treatment. And engagement in physical activity often leads to a community of supportive exercisers. Running, biking, and all other forms of physical activity have far deeper motives than competition or becoming the fastest. It is a way to further connect as humans through the process of self-improvement. 

Decompression
As value was possibly the most important word, decompress may be the most beneficial. It also can be the most challenging. Decompression, by definition, is to release from pressure or compression. I could not think of a better word to encapsulate what we are all seeking — to be relieved from the compression of quarantine and current restricted pressures. 

Decompression looks different for everyone. You must learn to understand the ways in which your body calms down; decompression is a mind-body experience — a quieting of the mind and a relaxation of the body. One of the best ways to enhance the ability to decompress is to spend time understanding your personal somatic symptoms of decompression. Exercise and engagement in physical activity help connect the mind and body. While many know that exercise releases endorphins, many forget that it also plays a key role in training the body to regulate and relieve tension. 

I hope that these five highlighted words help shift your perspective and narrative; not only throughout this pandemic but also throughout the remainder of life. One of the most valuable actions in life is self-empowerment through compassion. May this challenging time direct your focus towards opportunity generating activities towards goals within your control that lead to a fulfilling life of value. 

 

Tyler Byrd is a licensed independent mental health practitioner and an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. We also are proud that Tyler is a member of Balega’s 2020 Impi ambassador team. 

References
Kotler, S. (2015). The rise of superman: decoding the science of ultimate human performance. London: Quercus.
Lathia, N., Sandstrom, G. M., Mascolo, C., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2017). Happier People Live More Active Lives: Using Smartphones to Link Happiness and Physical Activity. Plos One, 12(1). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0160589
Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 366–378. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2015.1022901
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness. North Sydney, N.S.W.: Heinemann.