Three years ago, when Tyrone Duncan was jobless, recovering from a spinal injury and a stint in a homeless shelter, some volunteers at his transitional housing site encouraged him to run with them as they trained for a race.
“I didn’t manage more than a block at a time back then, but I kept at it and they kept at it with me,” Duncan recalls.
Now Duncan, 53, is the fastest member of that running group, and he credits the regimen of training for helping him stay off drugs and alcohol. He also has a full-time job at a Giant grocery store, a position he says he got not only because of his newfound discipline but also because members of that same group helped him write a resume and learn the skills necessary for his work.
So it’s no surprise when Duncan says running turned his life around. He is far from the only person in sneakers to make that claim. A growing number of national organizations are using the sport to help kids and adults facing such challenges as homelessness, drugs and cancer. They have a variety of names — Back on My Feet, Achilles International, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Run to Recover — but all have turned to running for the psychological and physiological benefits that training for a race can bring.
Any exercise, when done with enough vigor and for long enough, helps reduce stress and fuels the brain with chemicals that create a sense of well-being even after the sweating is done, says Michael Lehman, a researcher at the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Research at the National Institutes of Health. But few activities are as inexpensive and easy to do as running.
The link between exercise and better mental health has been well documented. A 2007 study of people with major depression in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, for example, found that the effects of exercise were comparable to those of antidepressants. When the researchers followed up with the study participants a year later, they found that keeping up with exercise helped prevent relapses. And a 2008 study found that people with anxiety saw their condition ease after a two-week exercise regimen more than a control group that was not enrolled in the workout program.
Anne M. Mahlum, chief executive of Back on My Feet — the group whose volunteers helped Duncan start running — says that beyond the physical benefits, running shows that you can set, and then meet, a goal. Mahlum founded the group in 2007 in Philadelphia to help people living in homeless shelters. As a teenager, she had turned to running to escape an addict father at home. Often her route would take her past a homeless shelter where a group of men would cheer her on. After some successful runs, Mahlum went back to the shelter and offered to put together a running program.
Back on My Feet now has chapters in 10 cities, where they also help runners find permanent homes and jobs.
Run to Recover, an online community and resource for people recovering from emotional and physical pain, was founded by Matt Klein. Like Mahlum, he used running to deal with his own problems, in his case drug and alcohol addiction. The group now counts more than 600 members. Newcomers who sign onto the group’s Facebook page find themselves quickly tapped with welcome messages from other members of the group.
“A run, no matter how long, has a beginning, middle and end. A start and a finish. Each run is a mini-battle and a major accomplishment,” says Klein, who runs marathons and Ironman races. “ It doesn’t matter if you are recovering from a terrible storm, the loss of a loved one, the death of a pet, depression, postpartum depression, a traumatic injury, post-traumatic stress or a chemical dependency.”