Motivation How Group Running Improves Mental Health

How Group Running Improves Mental Health

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Everyone has their own reasons for why they run. But in some situations, a workout can be a matter of life or death. Inside the world of running as a safety net.

By: Ron Johnson

Running is about health, fitness, community, mental health, love, challenge, remembrance and much more. Every weekend, there’s races across the country raising awareness and dollars for important causes. But what if there’s more to the power of pounding the pavement than signing up sponsors and hitting PBs? Maybe running can help tackle some of our more pressing problems in society.

In First Nations communities across Canada, young people are five to six times more likely to commit suicide than any place else in the country. Addiction runs rampant. Can running help? It’s far from a silver bullet, but Maggie MacDonnell thinks so.

MacDonnell, educational consultant for the Kativik School Board in Salluit, an Inuit community on the northern edge of Quebec, describes incorporating running in her work with at-risk children.  

“After the suicide of a popular, well-loved youth, one of my runners immediately came to the fitness centre,” MacDonnell says. “He was in a state of shock and that loss made him vulnerable. This youth deals with a lot of challenges as it is—including his own battles with addiction. But that night he transferred all those emotions into working out. I was so inspired by him.”

Before Salluit, MacDonnell spent a decade involved in sport as a means of youth and community development in places such as Tanzania and Botswana. She studied human kinetics at St. Francis Xavier University and received her master’s from the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto.

When MacDonnell arrived, she began by inviting anyone in the community to evening runs with her and her husband. Then came working with the community to open a fitness centre and establishing the Salluit Run Club for local kids, which has turned many lives around in a town of 1,300.

“These runners carry so much intergenerational trauma on their shoulders,” she says. “A lot of the youth in particular are dealing with enormous issues—housing crisis, suicidal thoughts, addictions, they may have dropped out of school. You have to connect with them first and then connect them with running.”

MacDonnell chose running as a fitness challenge to keep local residents engaged in a healthy lifestyle over the long term.

“It seemed like all sorts of bodies and abilities were welcome,” she says. “There were different race lengths. I could bring my alpha competitive athletes, but also people who were just starting to run/walk or who were on a weight loss journey or who were exercising for reasons of mental health. Everyone fit in.”

The club hatched plans to travel outside their community to race, first to the Scotiabank Blue Nose Marathon in Nova Scotia—which they did for three consecutive years—and then on to a race in Hawaii, the subject of a moving documentary. Jason Alariaq was part of the team that ran Hawaii.

“The training was harder than the run,” Alariaq says. “I quit smoking marijuana and went back to school. It helps [me] cope with my thoughts and it’s another way to heal from all the problems in the town.”

Next up for the Salluit runners, a spring half-marathon in Barbados.

The benefits of the Salluit Run Club are, according to MacDonnell: improved sleep; significant weight loss; improved self-esteem; new healthy coping strategies for stress; improved endurance; quitting cigarettes and marijuana; returning to school; improved attendance; new social support networks; improved eating habits; improved motivation; and the benefits associated with travel and exposure to new places and cultures.

Perhaps the most important gift these kids receive from their running is pride in oneself and seeing themselves as ambassadors for their community.

Fundraising continues to be difficult and travelling outside of the small community is expensive, but they get it done. The club fundraised for eight months to raise the $30,000 required for their last race in a community that has one of Canada’s highest rates of poverty. There’s no shoe store in Salluit. And while some of these issues and benefits are similar to those faced by teens in Canada’s major cities, here they’re amplified many times over thanks to a devastating history.

Dan McGann is a clinical social worker with a focus on teens dealing with depression, anxiety, ADHD and mood disorders. He tells the story of a kid in Mississauga, Ont., grappling with serious depression issues. One day, this kid walked to nearby railway tracks in Port Credit intent on killing himself. His little brother clung to his leg like a vice and wouldn’t let go.

As part of his treatment, he entered McGann’s run group therapy program out of Credit Valley Hospital. It helped turn his life around, and years later, he gives talks to other kids about, amongst other things, how running helped save his life.

McGann was inspired to begin the program after confronting his own issues with depression that led him to embrace running. It’s been in operation for eleven years and helped countless teens and their families. It’s also been embraced by dozens of schools in the area and as far as Victoria, B.C., and the United Kingdom.

McGann speaks of a wealth of research supporting running programs, including the work of Dr. John Ratey, author of Spark, as well as the research team at the McMaster Children’s Hospital. It’s what runners intuitively know, how our sport makes us feel great about ourselves, releases feel-good hormones, provides moments of clarity and the freedom to be alone with one’s thoughts.

“Running turned out to be something I love,” he says. “It’s transformed my life.”

What both programs have in common is the idea of giving back. People that have come through McGann’s program regularly return to speak to members of the community, some of whom are just be getting started.

In Salluit, it’s more difficult due to the vast distances between communities, but they’re trying. After the release of their documentary film, MacDonnell and the runners did a five-village speaking tour.

“Thanks to those presentations, we were able to recruit coaches and runners in new villages,” MacDonnell says. Yes, running is making a difference. Yes, the resilience demonstrated by the kids in Salluit continues to be a source of inspiration for MacDonnell. But she’s realistic and understands the bigger picture is dire.

“Running helps develop resilience in these youth, but they shouldn’t have to be so damn resilient,” she says. “They face too much, from decades of public underfunding, a housing crisis, food insecurity and high rates of addiction. As a country, I wish we’d address these issues swiftly and comprehensively.”

In the meantime, like the rest of us, they run.