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How #MentallyTough aims to harness science to solve life challenges

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1907 Foundation, a charity which funds young, disruptive scientists identifying causes & cures for mental illnesses, has launched #MentallyTough – a campaign for anyone to raise money for scientific research through physical challenges.

Blair Kelly, CTO of 1907 Foundation, has first-hand experience of the transformative impact exercise can have on a person’s mental health. He was in a particularly dark place, struggling with depression and addiction, when he took up running in his late 20s. 

“There were a lot of negative external factors in my life, and I used the fact that I had no control over them as an excuse for making bad decisions,” he said. “Like abusing alcohol. Behaviours that certainly didn’t make my situation better.”

He says he continued like this for a while, when in 2014, seemingly out of the blue, a friend asked him to go on an early-morning run. “I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ We met at 6AM and I made it three kilometres before my right knee couldn’t go any further.”

But he didn’t let that stop him. Before long, Blair was hitting the pavement at 6:00 AM to run 18 kilometres, five days a week. That’s when he says everything started to change for the better.

“Foregoing a drink felt less like a sacrifice and more like a boon. I could run further, faster. I was able to manage negative thoughts far better. I felt lighter. Everything improved in my life. Everything.” And it didn’t take long for the people around Blair to see these positive changes, either.

Still, he says, it hasn’t all been smooth-sailing. “I’ve had my ups-and-downs since I started running. But the interesting thing is, the lows always seem to be preceded by a relatively sedentary period. Anytime I’m not running or being active, that’s when things start to go downhill, and seem less manageable.

In late 2020, Blair decided he’d take on the IRONMAN triathlon, and began training with mountaineer-turned-scientist, Olof Dallner, PhD.

Olof moved to New York from Sweden in 2010 to conduct research into molecular physiology at Rockefeller University, and later became an accomplished triathlete, including competing at IRONMAN Kona and winning the Quintuple Anvil Triathlon. His background in molecular physiology means he understands the link between physical health and mental health more than most.

You’ve probably heard the dangers of obesity and the benefits of physical activity. Olof offers no surprises here: “You feel better because you’re getting fitter and you have more energy. Physical training obviously changes the body for the better.”

“But,” he says, “not in the way most people think.”

It turns out the link between physical exercise and “feeling better” is far deeper and intricate than a mere hit of endorphins. “When you train a muscle, it releases compounds into your bloodstream that reach your brain and affect your thinking,” said Dallner. “It’s not solely muscular. Exercise affects different tissue throughout the body, like the gut and fat cells.”

Exercise affects muscle tissue, so the fact it affects gut and fat cells doesn’t seem all that surprising. But Olof is just setting up to close a circle. “The microbiome in the gut is connected to the brain, this means it has a direct impact on our mental status. There’s also a connection between the brain and fat cells.”

He’s saying the link between one’s fat and one’s brain is a direct one. “Fat is often seen purely as a place where we store energy. But it’s actually an active organ, responsible for transferring chemical compounds into our blood. It reports back from nerves. So the brain is constantly feeding back to the fat.”

“As an IRONMAN coach, I’ve seen the positive effects undertaking a consistent training programme can have, purely on a mental level,” he said.

He went on to add that the mental benefits of training are often overlooked: “People tend to focus on the physical effects [of a consistent training regimen], not realising that they have also trained their brain by working consistently and sustainably.”

With any physical challenge, the journey is more important than the destination. Olof pointed to training as a type of meditation, saying, “it allows you to really focus on one thing and take time away from your other worries. That, combined with the physiological effects, makes you more relaxed.”

An IRONMAN is a great achievement, but Olof reminds us that the value is in the training, not the finish line. “If you do all the training and your event gets canceled at the last minute, does that undo all the work you’ve put in?”

This was something Blair realised as he prepared to undertake the 42.20 km marathon section of his IRONMAN, having already completed the 3.86 km swim and the 180.25 km bicycle ride.

“Don’t get me wrong, it felt great to cross the finish line at the IRONMAN,” he said.

But, somehow, he tells us, it just didn’t compare to the high of starting the last leg of his triathlon:  the marathon.

“I felt happiest when I was getting laced up, and as I ran through those first few kilometres, it felt great.”

“It was having that challenge and knowing that I was going to do it, just believing in myself, and visualizing myself reaching my goal, was the peak of that day.”

Adam Pieczonka, co-founder of 1907 Foundation, is encouraging people to improve their mental fitness by committing to their own personal #MentallyTough challenges and sharing their journey via the 1907 Foundation website:  https://1907.foundation/mentally-tough.

He reminds us that, historically, mental health has been treated as separate from physical health. “Mental health is biology as is the rest of health; you can’t expect to be mentally fit without being physically fit.  Nutrition and fitness are the low hanging fruit.” 

“Your life is your own marathon. You’re going to have your own obstacles. So set your own course, commit to it, achieve it and compare to how you felt before,” Pieczonka said. 

“Science is a method which anyone can apply to their life to improve themselves.”

1907 Foundation is encouraging people to sign up for their own challenge, tell their stories of perseverance, and better themselves.  Money raised supports emerging scientists researching biological causes & cures for mental illnesses.  Race with 1907 Foundation and test your limits by signing up at https://1907.foundation/mentally-tough.


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