Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

A new twist on mental health: Running with the therapist while discussing life's problems

The psychotherapist was in running gear: black tank top, black leggings and black shoes. Her hair was pulled back. She carried only her phone.

Leaving her office on Elena Avenue in Redondo Beach, Sepideh Saremi crossed a couple of streets, walked down a sloping path to the beach, then began to run north, toward the pier.

Had I been her patient, that’s when our session would have begun.

As we ran along the edge of the ocean, Saremi periodically asked me if I was OK, if the pace was good, if I was comfortable. I had a feeling that she was also reminding me that we were not pals, which struck me as entirely appropriate.

Running, I’ve learned over the decades, is the best kind of therapy. You always feel better after. Combining it with actual talk therapy, as Saremi does, seems like such an obvious practice, I wondered why no one had thought of it already.

Turns out, a handful of therapists around the world already have.

But Saremi, who was born to Iranian parents in Germany, didn’t know that when she began taking male clients for walks. She had recently graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in social welfare and was treating Farsi-speakers in a community mental health program run by Jewish Family Services. It occurred to her that getting out of the traditional office setting might be helpful, particularly for some of her male clients, who did not seem comfortable in the traditional therapeutic setting.

“Some had PTSD, others had severe mental illness like schizophrenia,” Saremi told me before we headed out for our run on Monday. “It was really hard for them to tolerate sitting in a room, talking about their feelings, especially with a young woman. Eye contact was an issue. So walking side by side actually made a lot of sense.”

She left that agency to start her own practice a couple of years ago, and decided that walk/run therapy for adults would be her niche. She earned a running coach certificate through the Roadrunners Club of America and hung out her shingle.

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When a former colleague told me about Saremi’s practice, it struck me as a perfectly sensible, and particularly Californian, way to get therapy.

I’ve been running for decades and have had the same running partner for the past 26 years or so. We often talk about how, for us, running is more about mental health than physical fitness, and joke that how we are each other’s favorite therapist.

When we run, our guards are down. We offer each other advice, sympathy and support. Sometimes we have spirited debates and get so caught up in conversation that we miss our turnaround point. Other times, we run in silence, attuned to each others’ rhythms and needs. We always run at the beach. We never race. Running next to the ocean, we like to say, increases our “endolphins.” (Sorry. We also laugh pretty hard at our own jokes.)

“There’s definitely a bridge between running for fitness and running for mental health,” Saremi said. “I have found it especially helpful for anxiety and depression.”

After launching her “Run Walk Talk” practice three years ago, Saremi, 33, discovered other professionals were doing similar things: She has spoken with Wayne Sandler, a psychiatrist in Century City, who has two treadmills in his office. She has also connected with William Pullen, an English therapist with a London practice who coined the phrase “Dynamic Running Therapy.”

But the granddaddy of the movement, as Saremi and her colleagues generally acknowledge, is an American psychiatrist named Thaddeus Kostrubala. In 1976, he published “The Joy of Running,” an influential book about the sport’s therapeutic benefits.

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A lot of Saremi’s running clients, as you might imagine, are high achievers who resist traditional therapy because sitting around talking — while paying $200 an hour — feels like a waste of time.

“This is a way to hook them into the therapy,” Saremi said. “I have people coming in who say, ‘I’ve been considering going to therapy for six years.’ I say, ‘That’s a really long time to be struggling and suffering before you step into my office.’ I think the running is what helps them make their decision.”

As Saremi and I ran together, we covered many subjects: drug addiction, death, sex and money. Our pace was talking speed for both of us — around 10 minutes per mile.

When we reached the Redondo Beach Pier, we walked past the kitschy shops out to where the fishermen were standing with their poles in the water. A night heron was hunched like a little old man, waiting for scraps.

After we turned around to run back, we had a pretty good discussion about things that journalists and therapists have in common:

We both need to gain trust and get close to people so they tell us about themselves. We must find a way to maintain professional barriers, a particular challenge for a therapist who runs or walks with clients.

Forty-five minutes or so after we’d started, we arrived back at Saremi’s office.

We were both sweaty and maybe a little breathless. I, for one, was in very good spirits.

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