I am an expat living in the Netherlands since 2000. I am a qualified psychologist and running therap...
Running: cheap, accessible physical and mental health18 July 2014, by Stephen Davies
Running is most definitely an "in" sport in the Netherlands. Go to any park, beach or open green space and you are pretty much guaranteed to see at least one individual working up a sweat in their running gear, and why not?
Running is a relatively cheap sport, accessible the moment we walk outside onto the street and offering a wonderful feeling of accomplishment once completed. The flat surroundings here are ideal for the beginner, leaving you to concentrate on putting your best foot forward instead of cursing yourself because you didn’t start at the top of the hill!
Physical & Mental benefits of running
The physical benefits of running are well known. General fitness and stamina will improve over the long term, while high blood pressure and cholesterol counts can be reduced. With the correct use of warming up and cooling down exercises, muscles will gradually be extended and strengthened, increasing both flexibility and durability.
Running also has a positive influence on mental health and well-being. While you are running, your brain produces a number of neurotransmitters and hormones (naturally produced chemical messengers) that make you feel good, whilst reducing the output of those that are created during stressful moments.
These messengers can also help stabilise mood in a similar way that pharmaceutical alternatives manipulate the brain, but with none of the side effects. Focusing on the exercise you are doing can help reduce stress and clear your mind of worries. It can also serve as a distraction from and ultimately as a more functional way of dealing with unhealthy habits that have been introduced to help deal with daily hassles.
Other benefits of running can include an improvement in the quality of sleep and a renewed interest in sexual contact, not to mention an improvement in the sexual experience itself.
Running as a form of self-medication?
There is a growing group of individuals working in physical and mental healthcare in the Netherlands who are now actively encouraging running as a therapy form, suitable for helping those suffering from depression, anxiety, stress-related problems, burnout, chronic exhaustion, physical pain issues for which no source can be identified, and many more.
The argument is that a light exercise programme should be considered as a possible first option in what is referred to as the "stepped care" model. This is the process of attempting different approaches to improve the complaint, starting with the least invasive.
The goal of including running in the stepped care model is ultimately to reduce prescribing unnecessary medications to individuals who probably do not need them and which may do them more harm than good in the long term.
Running therapy or running group?
There are many running groups available in and around Dutch cities and countless websites that offer schedules for running set distances within a certain time limit.
Running therapy attempts to simplify the goals of running by removing the competitive element. Individuals are not encouraged to start running therapy with an idea of how many kilometres they wish to be able to cover.
Instead, the focus is on a gradual build-up of sustained running, at a pace that is comfortable to the participant and through the use of interval training methods (light running and walking).
Other advice regarding the improvement of general mental health is offered next to the running programme and participants are encouraged to keep up their progress outside the guided sessions.
Progression is measured by the enjoyment you experience, the positive effects running has on your daily life and the improvement of your own self-esteem.
A suitable exercise schedule for all
Running therapy is great for the individual who would really like to start getting more active, but may be too self-conscious to step foot in a gym, or need more intensive help get them started.
It is also perfect for someone who has frequently set themselves the goal of getting in shape, buying all the fitness gear and joining numerous gyms, only to push themselves a little too hard, too fast and ending up losing motivation, injuring themselves or just more exhausted as a result.
Running therapy is therefore suitable for almost anyone who is interested in improving their physical activity but requires some light guidance. When carried out in a group, running offers the chance of social contact with others who have similar past experiences with trying to improve physical and mental fitness.
It also offers support by showing people that neither they nor anyone else is alone in their endeavours.
I am always interested in hearing other people’s points of view so please share your thoughts in the comments.