Exercise may be the last thing you consider. Yet organisational psychologist Juriena de Vries has proved that running is a good and relatively cheap therapy to treat fatigue. Why does it work? That’s the question addressed by her follow up research at EUR. She has 4 tips for students.

“Many of the students who took part in my research were really unfit,” says Juriena de Vries. “I was appalled. Because to function well mentally, it’s very important to be in a good physical condition.” After completing her PhD research in Nijmegen, since January De Vries has been working at EUR as assistant professor of labour and organisational psychology. Here she wants to continue her research into why exercise has such a positive effect on work and studying and as a remedy for early signs of burnout.

Feeling better mentally

For many years, De Vries, herself an elite triathlete, had observed that exercising helps people feel better, physically and mentally. “But strangely, there was very little in scientific literature about sport and burnouts.” When a PhD programme appeared that combined her psychology studies and her sport, she grabbed her chance. “I thought: ‘This is it.’ How often do you find exactly the research position that you want?”

Juriena de Vries performing at the Triathlon National Championships Image credit: Marc van der Kort

De Vries selected 100 students suffering from study-related stress and 100 staff members with burnout symptoms to test the effects of a six week running therapy programme. These were people who did very little exercise, because ‘we wanted to study the effects of as big a lifestyle change as possible.’ She mainly selected people suffering fatigue, one of the symptoms of long term stress. Over a period of six weeks, she got half of both groups to run at a gentle pace and subjected all participants to weekly tests to measure fitness, attention span and mental health.

She found: anyone who does a gentle run three times a week is less tired, sleeps better and has a longer attention span than someone who doesn’t run at all. After six weeks, the participants also did better in tasks involving concentration and staff members felt more able to do their work. She thus proved that a gentle run can help anyone suffering early signs of burnout.

The results do not show whether you can really run a serious burnout out of your body. “From an ethical point of view, we couldn’t put half of the people suffering a serious burnout in a control group without therapy. They need help now. Furthermore, it might have been too much for them to start running at that moment.”

Start running the stress out of your body

4 tips from Juriena de Vries’ research.

  1. Run three times a week, for an hour for example. But remember: don’t overdo it. “Exercise can give you energy, but if you do too much, you’ll feel more tired. The best intensity is if you can easily conduct a conversation. Even if you only run 7 or 8 kilometres an hour, that’s fine.”
  2. Build it up slowly. “Start by alternating running and walking, for example 10 sets of 1 minute running, 2 minutes walking.”
  3. Take a day off after each session. That gives you time to recover.
  4. Be careful not to turn it into a competition. It mustn’t provide added pressure. And are you exercising at a high level? Then keep a good balance between rest and relaxation. “During a busy research or study period, you sometimes need to go a bit easier on exercise, as I’ve noticed myself.”

The secret of running

So what’s the secret? Why does an hour’s run three times a week have a positive effect? “Firstly, all the participants said that they slept better. That’s obviously a very logical explanation,” De Vries begins. But also: “You distance yourself from your work, you think about something else for a while. You feel fitter and more energetic, which means you have less trouble dealing with problems in your work. And the progress you make in your running gives you self-confidence.”

Cheap intervention for EUR

Students often don’t have time for sport or exercise, as De Vries is aware. And it’s hard to motivate yourself when you feel tired and washed out. “But it’s worth making time for it. Even if it’s just half an hour, to empty your head and feel fitter.” It would be great if EUR offered both its staff and students a running programme, says De Vries. “It’s a relatively cheap intervention and it can’t do any harm. Particularly if you have good support, for example from a running therapist.”