How Running Has Boosted My Mental Health

Like most Davis students know, winter quarter is an arduous time. I had multiple midterms, essays, and projects stacked up within the same weeks. There was no more time to watch television, read for pleasure, or idly scroll through Pinterest (just kidding, there’s always time for Pinterest). With so many tasks to complete and just not enough hours in the day, I went to bed overly-stressed and woke up frantic. The days had melted into one unenjoyable blur where I took no moments to practice self-care. My roommate, who is a total health-nut, saw me in distress and decided to drag me to the gym with her.

The first few times we went to the gym, I stuck to the Stairmaster and our ab workout. I found that while working out did help a little, I still found myself thinking about all the other assignments I could be working on instead of “wasting time” by going to the gym. This cycle continued on for a while until she begged me to try running.

I used to despise running, but I gave in and she started me on an easy treadmill workout. She had me run for three minutes and walk for two minutes at an incline and speed I felt comfortable at, and I repeated the circuit four times for a total of twenty minutes. For once, my mind was blank. I could only focus on controlling my breathing and picking up my feet to keep moving forward.

Going to the gym to run three to four times a week became my form of self-care. By increasing my productivity and greatly improving my sleep, my levels of stress declined. Despite the harder gym days where running one mile felt like three, I no longer felt anxious about all of the assignments and tests that were on my calendar. I found myself enjoying the intense sweat-session and how my mind could completely wander as I experienced a runner’s high.

This spring quarter, my roommate and I signed up for UC Davis’s Military ROTC Conditioning class to really push our physical and mental capabilities. I was determined to not fall into the trap of heavy stress and anxiety that affected me during winter quarter. In one of the first classes, they announced that we were going to do a five-mile run. Although I had been leisurely jogging on a treadmill at the gym, I have never run five miles on the ground in my life. Absolutely terrified about not being able to finish, I joined the slowest time group and took the run as a chance to measure my fitness and to practice controlling my breathing.

During the first mile, I was slightly disappointed in myself because I was technically in last-place. Compared to the other participants in the program, it takes me twice the amount of effort to keep up with the pace. Constantly comparing myself to the others brought on anxious thoughts that were distracting me from my usual peaceful mind during runs. After another mile or so, I realized something. No matter where you are in life and no matter how far behind you think you are, you are never in last place because some people have not even begun to start this journey.

This philosophy came to me as a blessing on my own fitness journey to decrease my stress and test my physical and mental limits. Academic competition is a package deal if you go to a UC, and it can definitely get the best of us if ample time is wasted comparing yourself to others. It’s a damper on your ability to perform at maximum academic and social levels if your time is spent agonizing over whether you’re in “last place”. Your brain will thank you for eliminating the possibility of “what-if?” and bloom over the fact that you’ve given it your all and tried your best.

Though it was one of the most exhausting states I’ve been in, the five-mile run was rewarding. Running has given me a healthy and productive way to relieve stress and boost my mental health. It gives my active mind a safe place to wander or be completely blank to take a break from the trivial thoughts that cross my mind. This is what works for me and I encourage everyone to find something that works for them. Whether that be swimming laps, journaling, or watercolor painting in the arboretum, find an activity that helps to relieve stress and reset your mind. My overall mental health has greatly improved with every step I take, and I’ve learned that no matter the pace I run, I’m a participant in a race that consists of me, and only me.