Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Exercise & Mental Health: Janette's Story

During a training run a few Saturdays ago when I first began this blog on fitness, my good friend Janette, who, at age 45, has run many half and full marathons, suggested I should do an article on running and depression. Being someone who has first-hand experience with depression, I thought Janette’s idea was a very good one. Plus, she graciously agreed to share her own story about how running and a regular workout routine has helped her successfully manage her mental illness.

Saturday morning run group: George, Me, Mhairi, Janette, Ann, Ang, Wes.
For background information I did a little local online research and found a great web site called starttalking.ca. Start Talking is a Simcoe County Mental Heatlh Awareness campaign led by community members and the Canadian Mental Health Association Simcoe County Branch. Their goals are to reduce the stigma related to mental health and increase service options and the use of services for members of their community. The staff there linked me with Urbaine Lesperance, a case worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health & Addiction Service, Simcoe County, who is trained as a recreational therapist and who works with people living with mental health issues. “I am their motivator – the cheerleader,” offered Lesperance.
We spoke not only about the importance of exercise and staying active, but its social benefits. “When someone is suffering with a mental health issue the number-one thing they stop doing is being around people,” Lesperance explained. Feelings of paranoia, lack of energy and a tendency to isolate oneself are the kinds of symptoms he sees in new clients. By opening up a dialogue about the kinds of activities they have enjoyed doing in the past, Lesperance helps get his clients (whose depression may be rooted in many causes, including a recent disability) active again and thus re-established into their community.
Lesperance noted that although he is the “cheerleader” offering support and direction, his clients play an integral role in their own therapy: “They have to want the change, and do the change,” he said. One success story he shared is that of a client who had gained a lot of weight as a side effect of his mental illness. After incorporating running into his exercise regime three to four times a week, he not only lost 80 pounds, he started volunteering, working and being part of society again.
“To me, it’s overall fitness, [both physical and mental] that’s important,” said Lesperance. “Even taking half an hour a day of your time [doing an activity] that you enjoy - even if it’s reading a book - it relieves that stress and those negative thoughts.”
My friend Janette would likely agree with this statement wholeheartedly. An active volunteer and leader in the community where she went to high school, Janette is constantly signing up for running events, challenging herself to push her fitness to the next level. Her enthusiasm is infectious (she was the one who motivated me to try for a marathon three years ago) and her determination to overcome obstacles is admirable. (This past Sunday, she completed the 30K Around the Bay race, one year after slipping on ice and breaking her leg during a training run.)
Here is her story. Thank you, Janette my friend, for sharing such a personal journey and for continuing to inspire me to pursue my own life goals.
Running & Depression:
An Inspirational Interview with Janette Vander Zaag
Janette ready to rock Around the Bay
Is it fair to say you have suffered from bouts of depression in your life? How have you managed it?
Yes, I was 12 when my mother was diagnosed with leukemia and I was 16 years old when she died (1984).  She was the emotional glue of the family and my father's way of dealing with her death was, in military terms, to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps". While this may have gotten him through his grief, it didn't help me, and I felt very lonely and isolated. I developed an eating disorder (bulimia) in an attempt to stuff down my feelings. Had I been assessed at that time, I'm sure I would have been diagnosed with depression.
In 1999, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic depressive disorder) and hospitalized for two weeks. Following that, I was given medication and told that it would allow me to live a "normal life".  The medication actually put me into what I can only describe as a drug induced "zombie like" state. After six months of sleeping my life away, I changed doctors and found one that took a holistic view of mental illness, that encompassed the body, mind and spiritual aspects. Gradually I weaned myself off the meds (not recommended but in my case, it did work). My new doctor looked at nutrition and the elimination of caffeine was strongly recommended. I also knew that exercise was an important aspect of my mental health, so began swimming and then running.
I have continued to stay active and find that my moods are significantly regulated through regular and consistent exercise, especially cardiovascular.
When did you take up running and why?
I have always loved running. I ran cross country in elementary school and was on the high school track and field team for 400 and 800 m. (though I wasn't very fast and never won anything!) I have taken up running intermittently throughout the years, but it wasn't until a running clinic opened in my hometown that I started running long distances. I started with The Running Experience's five km clinic and progressed to the 10, then the half and onto the full marathon. I run because it makes me feel great. I sign up for races because it keeps me motivated to run - I need a goal to strive towards to keep me interested.
How does running (and cross training) make you feel before, during and after a session? How do you feel when you miss a few days?
I always feel better after a run, even if it's been a bad run. It just seems to clear my head and put life into perspective again. Shorter training runs that I do on my own are great for "quiet time"- just letting my mind mull over things. Sometimes it becomes a time for meditation and I pray for whatever I am dealing with at the time. Other times I just enjoy the silence and solitude of down time.
There are times when I have less energy and my legs feel like lead and it is really a stinker of a run (Author's note: I know the feeling!) but even then, there is always a finish and I can't recall ever feeling worse afterwards. I had a cold last week and skipped exercise for four days and I felt mentally low by the end of those days. On day five I went for a run and felt my mood significantly elevated.
How often during the week do you incorporate exercise?
I try to get out for exercise at least four times a week. Usually, I will cross train twice (either boot camp or cycling) and run a minimum of twice a week. As a race approaches, I will up my running to four times a week.
What do you do to keep motivated?
It's not so much what I do to keep motivated versus knowing how I will feel if I don't exercise that keeps me going. As an extrovert, I enjoy group workouts and especially having a group to run the long distance training runs with keeps me honest about getting them in. Signing up for the next race is also good incentive to keep training. Not to mention that I keep thinking how great I will look if I stay fit. But at the end of the day, it is the mental health benefits that keep me going. I have been medication free since 2001.
A case worker with Simcoe County's Mental Health and Addiction Services commented that overall fitness, both physical and mental, is important. Some of their clients are unable to participate in physical activities due to accident recovery or medication they are taking. When you broke your leg, what did you do to keep those positive endorphins flowing?
When I broke my leg, I was unable to do anything active for about six weeks. I kept my mind active reading and journaling and visiting with friends. As soon as I got the ok from the doctor, I was in the pool and swimming four times a week. I did physiotherapy both at the hospital and privately, and was very compliant with the doctor's orders so that I wouldn't risk my healing by pushing things too fast. At six months I got the ok to start running again but I took it slow, kept up with the swimming and cycling and eased into the running.
What are some of your fitness goals? (physical, mental and/or spiritual)
Fitness goals are to run the Boston Marathon before I am 50. I also want to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in my 50th year and invite anyone who wants to join me, to join me!!! (I am 45).
I would also like to keep active and to lose some weight before my next marathon (as it will increase my speed). However, weight loss is my final frontier as I love (junk) food and wine and hate to give up those good things that life has to offer. I run to eat (the way I like to eat, not healthy, but yummy!)
Who inspires you?
I am inspired by my women's running group (“The Picton Group”). These are the women that keep it real, keep me going, and whom I enjoy being around. Each of these unique, strong, intelligent, beautiful women inspires me. I am inspired by (run coach/friend/Thrive Fitness, Alliston co-owner) Ann Jackson, who brought us together to run this race of life together (as well as being a Boston finisher).
What advice would you give someone who, for whatever personal reason, is hesitating about starting a fitness regime?
Go for it! It is the best gift you will ever give yourself and you will be a better person for taking that first baby step toward your goal.
For more information on Start Talking visit starttalking.ca. Their support line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can be reached locally (Simcoe County) at 705-728-5044 or 1-888-893-8333. For more information on Thrive Fitness visit www.thrivefitness.ca.

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