An article I wrote for PC Uganda newsletter to share with fellow PCV’s what I do @ site to preserve my sanity.

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When people ask me what my religion is, I sometimes tell them that it is running. When I don’t practice this religion that I discovered three years ago, I feel pretty discontent with my life. I feel sad, withdrawn, restless, empty, and worthless, which may sound like tendencies of a person suffering from clinical depression. Even though I haven’t been diagnosed with clinical depression, these tendencies can develop in anyone even though someone who has a genetic disposition has a greater risk in developing the condition. No one is immune to clinical depression. Our body can develop conditions when we don’t take care of it; similarly our mind can develop disorders when we neglect our mental health.

Each person is responsible for figuring out the best way to take care of his/her mental health. Some people may meditate or combine meditation with yoga; others may find solace in prayer or silent reflection. Playing a team sport, or expressing oneself through creative movement or visual arts may help some others. No matter what one’s outlet is, it’s important to do something. Doing something to take care of one’s mental health is even more important when one is living outside of one’s home base.

In my mid twenties, I decided that I needed to do something so I can stay healthy in the various stages of adulthood. I had no aspirations to do one-armed push-ups like my great granddad, but I wanted to develop habits that increased my chances in staying fit and healthy in my 80’s. Around that time, I also decided that I wanted higher bone density levels into my late adulthood, so I can lower the risk of developing fractures or osteoporosis later in life. I enrolled myself in a weight training program in the Peach State (home of the Georgia Bulldawgs, Yellow Jackets, & the Eagles) I lived in before moving to the Pearl. Combining weight training, cardiovascular activities (running, aerobics), and flexibility (yoga) made me a happy camper back in Athens, Ga. When I moved to Uganda, I was concerned that the change in my physical routine would affect my mental health.

When I was in homestay in Wakiso, I tried running a few times. Not knowing what to do with unwanted attention, my runs became occasional. A sudden change in my physical routine made be anxious and unhappy during PST (Pre Service Training) and I probably would have left the country if it weren’t for my super loving host family and almost a decade long desire to do Peace Corps.

When I moved to site, I decided that I needed another reason to run in a patriarchal society. I decided that I want to run for the fellow women. In a culture where women are expected to live under the authority of their fathers and later under the control of their husbands and are defined and judged based on their role as caregivers to their children, I wanted to show that a woman can do something just for herself. Not for her partner. Not for her babies. Not for society. Just for herself.

When I started running regularly, I immediately noticed a change in my mood elevations, which isn’t surprising since running increases one’s endorphin levels that generate an overall sense of well-being and elevate one’s moods. When I run regularly, my body has practice recovering from the increased levels of adrenaline, which provides practice in recovering from the effects of physical anxiety. When I feel less anxious, I can focus on things that are important to me—giving back to those around me and acquiring skills I need to accomplish my long-term goals.

Running doesn’t just help in the mental health but it also has many benefits to the physical health. Elevating the heart rate over a long period of time can boost one’s cardiovascular health. When a person first starts running, the physical exertion forces the heart to pump more blood than it is used to pumping. This initial change in heart rate overloads the heart and the heart adapts to the change in the heart rate by pumping (more) efficiently. Once the heart pumps more blood, then more oxygen can be delivered to the muscles and more ATP can be produced in one’s body. ATP or adenosine triphosphate is a multi-functional nucleotide (fancy term for molecules that join together to make structural units) that plays a crucial role in metabolism and serves as sources of chemical energy. In addition to that, studies show running may contribute to an increase in brain cell growth in the areas associated with memory (The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer).

Running also helps in working towards one of the goals that I want to achieve before I hit my 30’s—running a marathon. A PCV volunteer, who ran two marathons, told me that once a person runs a marathon, then he/she feels like he/she can do anything. My goal for the first marathon is to finish the challenge. I don’t have a time goal even though I would be more comfortable if I can finish it in four hours. If you plan to train for a marathon and have a time goal, then you should ask the volunteer who has trained for several triathlons, or one of the many PCV’s who have completed a marathon.

If you don’t have a time goal, then you may want to follow the following training schedule (Whitsett, Dolgener & Kole’s The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer) in the table below. The distance is in miles. Before you start on this training schedule, you should be able to jog continuously for 30 minutes. The authors also experimented with training programs from 4-6 days a week and found four week programs are just as effective as those programs with more than 4 days a week of training. Figuring out your foot type and investing in a good running shoe (Asics Nimbus 11th generation works great) would reduce your chances of developing injuries.

Week Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Total
1 3 4 3 5 15
2 3 4 3 6 16
3 3 4 3 7 17
4 3 5 3 8 19
5 3 5 3 10 21
6 4 5 4 11 24
7 4 6 4 12 26
8 4 6 4 14 28
9 4 7 4 16 31
10 5 8 5 16 34
11 5 8 5 16 34
12 5 8 5 18 36
13 5 8 5 18 36
14 5 8 5 9 27
15 3 5 3 8 19
16 3 3 Walk 3 marathon 35.2

Taking care of one’s mental health requires work. It takes dedication and discipline to follow mental and physical exercises. Following a discipline makes one emotionally and physically strong. If one takes small measures now to take care of one’s mental and physical health, then one can enjoy short-term and long-term benefits.

On a personal note, four years ago I couldn’t imagine running a 5K and found the possibility daunting. Last year I ran my first 10K. My granddad once told me that the only person who can stop you from doing what you want is yourself. The possibilities of what one can do are endless. The first step is to get up and do something. Let us stay true to the PC motto: Life is calling. How far are you willing to go?

I wish you the very best in taking care of your mental health while you strive to make a difference in people’s lives. Age Quod Agis. Do well whatever you do. May the force be with you (Yoda, Jedi Master).

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