Hannah Beecham is the founder of RED January, a community campaign which promotes the impact of exercise on mental health by helping people to be active every day in January. As Hannah finalises plans for January 2020, we talked about the success of 2019 and the family experience that started it all.
How did your mum’s personal experience spark this passion for improving mental health through exercise?
My mum experienced a very difficult period with her depression back in 2015. I live in London and was making regular trips back to Derbyshire to keep her company so she knew she wasn’t alone. My family and I wanted to do more but felt pretty helpless. Exploring ways to support my mum got me thinking about how being active has always been important in helping me manage life’s challenges and stresses. I also tended to sign-up to running challenges to give me a goal and focus to work towards.
My mum enjoyed spending time outdoors walking our dogs, but her appetite had disappeared during this period. In an attempt to motivate my mum to bring movement back into her life and provide her with a goal to work towards, I made the decision to sign us both up for Walk the Walk marathon.
What was her reaction to your announcement?
The day I went back to tell her, the curtains were closed and she had been signed off work, yet here I was telling her we were going to walk a marathon together! As you might imagine, there was no jump out of bed moment, she didn’t shout “yes, let’s get started” but we slowly planned a journey together that was to last for the next six months.
At the start I would go home regularly as we gradually built the walks up, starting with five to ten minute walks. As my mum’s confidence started to grow, she developed a routine and was soon supporting herself on a daily basis without needing me. I would often ring home to see how she was doing and find she was out walking.
Throughout the training, my mum started experiencing all the benefits that we hope physical activity, routine and fresh air can bring. My mum’s mood, energy and confidence levels increased and there was a real change in her. On phone calls I could distinctly hear a difference in her voice. It had gone from being monotone to now having real life in it again. It was wonderful to hear!
How did it feel to cross that finish line together?
We walked for eight and a half hours throughout the night. The sense of achievement to go from where my mum was six months ago, to crossing that finish line was huge! I am so proud of her. The journey to that point certainly wasn’t easy and there were days where my mum couldn’t face going out in the world, but now she had found something that supported her in a way she felt comfortable with.
We both shed a tear and my mum said “let’s do it!”
My mum still walks regularly but equally important is that she now opens up more. The process of moving together side by side on those walks, helped her to talk and let me start to understand the feelings my mum was experiencing.
So what inspired you to turn your Mum’s journey into the RED January campaign?
I had just witnessed something very powerful, both the impact of physical activity but also of having a goal to aim for. It gave my mum a real sense of purpose. I desperately wanted to continue the journey for my Mum but not necessarily with another marathon. I realised that most events take place through the summer with very few happening during winter. Whether you have a mental health condition or not, winter is often the time when we need extra motivation to support ourselves. We call it the winter blues and that is what sparked the concept of RED January – Run Every Day in January.
As people were taking on a month long challenge, I suspected many would also want to raise some money. Leading mental health charity Mind, felt like the perfect charity as they ensure all money raised goes back to supporting people when they need it most. In that first year back in January 2016, over one thousand people took part and we raised almost £23,000 for Mind. There was a real community spirit at the heart of it and an appetite to support it again, so I made plans for the following year and beyond.
Since that first event, the awareness and support for RED January has been incredible. How have you achieved that?
Last year we made the decision to drop the “run every day” concept and expand it to “active every day”. It has made it more inclusive especially for people taking up physical activity for the first time who might struggle to run every day and risk injury. The response to that change has been successful as it enables people to do what is right for them and their mental health. For one person, that could be training for a marathon, for another it is walking up the stairs rather than taking the lift. We have had people walking, cycling, cold water swimming and Bollywood dancing. The variety of activities is inspiring to see.
Mind have been an incredibly supportive charity partner and there’s a real appetite for the RED community to continue Mind’s life-changing work. To date, an incredible £1.7million has been raised. I have seen first hand where that money goes, visiting Mind’s Infoline which is a confidential and safe space to seek information on the types of support available to you where you live.
Several high profile names have also shared their support for RED January
We also have more and more companies, schools and universities embracing the RED January concept. We have heard how staff members are getting active in their lunch break for the first time. Working out with people in their organisation that they’d never spoken to before. It also helps support open conversations in the workplace about mental health which is so important.
Do you personally get to witness and hear the experiences of fellow REDders?
Last year, I made a real point of getting away from my laptop to meet as many REDders as possible and hear their stories and feedback. It has been very humbling. People have commented on how they used to see the cold weather as a barrier to physical activity, but now they see it as revitalising and refreshing. They often comment on the impact of making small changes in their routine to incorporate physical activity every day, with many sharing that it’s become a habit that they’re looking forward to continuing well after January.
Winter is often the time when we need extra motivation to support ourselves
As well as individual journeys, I have heard from several families that took part this year. They describe how increasing the time spent being active as a family has brought them all closer. For many, it is something they are not willing to let go of after January, particularly when so many young people are lured away to their bedrooms by digital distractions.
As you finalise plans for RED January 2020, how does your Mum reflect on all of this?
I am really proud of how my mum has reacted to the momentum. To be part of this journey has been incredibly uplifting for her. The fact that there are 90,000 people around the country joining me and my mum every January still hasn’t quite sunk in… maybe 2020 is the year that it will!
Click here to find out more about RED January and register for 2020.