Feeling low? Exercise and 'Run for Women' with Hayley Wickenheiser

The national hockey team captain helped clean up flooded hometown Calgary

After the close of the 1998 Olympics, Canada's national hockey team captain Hayley Wickenheiser suffered an emotional low.

The runner-up letdown of a silver medal at the Nagano Games will never leave her. "To the day I die, I will never forget standing at the blue line during the medal ceremony," she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Gold Medal Diary. "I was completely crushed."

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One in four women will experience depression in her lifetime. Five per cent will live with depression for more than a year while less than two per cent will be depressed for a month or more at a time. Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from depression.

Wickenheiser was never diagnosed with clinical depression, but her mood fell to new depths. She had a way of coping.

"No matter how bad things are, I always feel better after a workout," said Wickenheiser, who won gold at three consecutive Winter Olympics following Nagano.

Exercise that raises your heart rate for at least 25 minutes is proven to effect brain chemistry as well as antidepressants and talk therapy. Research also shows running increases levels of serotonin, a mood-elevating hormone.

On July 13, Wickenheiser will be in Vancouver for the second annual Run for Women, a Canadian race series for girls and women that benefits women's mental health programs through the B.C. Women's Hospital Foundation.

The five- and 10-kilometre courses begin after Wickenheiser speaks to the crowd at 8 a.m. at UBC's Thunderbird Stadium. There is also a one-km course for girls. Visit runforwomen.ca for more information.

Wickenheiser, 34, who has been cleaning up her hometown Calgary following the floods, spoke to the Courier last week from the Okanagan after finishing a national team training camp in Penticton.

Courier: Do you include running in your own exercise regime?

Hayley Wickenheiser: I do running, biking, all sorts of stuff - usually track work, mostly interval work. We don't do a lot of long distances with hockey. It's mostly sprints.

Courier: You're giving a motivational talk before the event. What will you say to inspire the women and girls who are running?

HW: I'll talk about the importance of being active and setting goals for yourself - obviously not everybody is going to be an Olympic athlete, but you can certainly improve your health and wellness. It should be a focus for everyone. I'll touch on some of the stories coming out of the flood situation in Calgary, which is where I live, [and] how life is short and you never know what could happen so you have to enjoy it while you can and while you're healthy.

Courier: How have you been helping clean up after the flood in Calgary?

HW: A big group of friends helped organize a clean-up crew and we have gone to seven or eight homes and completely gutted them and helped people get rid of the debris. We used a large cube van to haul stuff to the landfill, so it's been a really crazy week. When you get down to the devastation, it doesn't do it justice on the news. You see how bad it is. I couldn't [appreciate it] either until I actually went down there and saw it with my own eyes. The magnitude, it was indiscriminatory. Rich, poor... It didn't mater. The amount of water in some homes is six feet up the wall. The stories the locals would tell was of a tsunami-like wave coming through the neighbourhood.

Courier: Can the physical exertion required in cleaning up communities in Alberta help lift people's mood when they're facing such devastation and loss?

HW: That was something I was going to touch on as well. When you physically move and you get active, it always helps your state of mind. For people with the flood, actually it was so overwhelming to start with, they didn't know where to start in a lot of cases with the cleanup.

Just starting anywhere that's the same thing with physical activity. If you don't know where to start, just even going for a walk, just even going for that run. Just starting is the hardest part. From there it does get easier and that's what were seeing in Calgary. It will get easier but it will take a long, long time. If people didn't start somewhere, they would still be stuck in that depressed situation.

Courier: Have you personally dealt with depression or been close to teammates who have?

HW: For sure. I don't know if I'd say clinical depression, but I can tell you, after losing the Olympics in '98, I went through a bit of an Olympic depression for about a year. It's a huge letdown when you want something so bad and it doesn't happen. There are certainly other periods in our life we all go through tough times, so there is no question about it just like everybody else, I've experience low moments. I think everybody is going to go through that. We need to find ways to cope. For me, working out and training I always, no matter how bad things are, I always feel better after a workout.

Courier: How do you feel after you work out?

HW: Clarity, more energized. Better about myself that I've been productive and done something that's good for my own health. For a lot of women, as soon as they've taken care of everybody else, they forget to take care of themselves. That's a big part of it as well. Just doing something small for yourself every day can make a huge difference in your life.

Courier: How do you motivate yourself when you don't feel like exercising?

HW: I always think about everybody else that's working out when I'm not! The day that I am not doing something or skip a workout, someone else is doing it. I always want to think about it like that and also I have a desire to be the best athlete I can be. You really have got to commit to that. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Just like the clean up is in Calgary. If you're dedicating yourself everyday to try to get a little bit better or to work on your fitness or different parts of your athleticism or career to improve over time, it really adds up. It doesn't all have to be done in one day.

Courier: Nor can it be done in one day.

HW: Exactly.

Courier: You're an Olympian - what about the rest of us? What would you tell us to stay motivated when we don't feel like lacing up the sneakers?

HW: I think it's exactly the same philosophy. Sometimes it really is about getting up, putting your shoes on and getting out the door. Even if you start and say, "I'm going to walk 10 minutes around the block," it might turn into 20 or 30 and you might surprise yourself. I think that's really a key factor: sometimes the hardest thing is just to get started.

And, to also do it with support: friends, training partners can really make us accountable when you don't feel like it. The other thing, too, is to verbalize. If you tell someone else, "This is my goal," it's a lot harder to let up on it.

Courier: Running can be a social activity that is helpful for people who are suffering from mental illness because they often end up isolated and trying to cope on their own. In your experience, do you feel differently after having worked out with teammates compared to exercising alone?

HW: It's always more fun. I'm pretty OK I like to train on my own now. When I was younger, it was nice to have training groups. I think you always push yourself a little harder when you have someone else there, giving right beside you. There's always a competitive edge no matter who you are, I think you always want to really do your best. I think training groups can be really empowering.

mstewart@vancourier.com

Twitter.com/MHStewart

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