9 Little-Known Ways Running Can Improve Your Mental Health

There's more than just stress reduction

Friends running trails together on winter morning
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When stress hits, many runners lace up their running shoes, hit the road, and soon find they’ve improved their mood and released some of their frustrations. But the mental benefits of running aren’t just about reaching that euphoric runner’s high that runners often talk about. As an all-natural, simple, effective, and cost-efficient remedy, running is one of the best ways to effectively deal with stress, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and even addiction.

Here are some of the many ways that running can improve your mental health:

1. Running Reduces Stress

If you’ve ever gone for a run after a rough day at work, you may have noticed that hitting the road or running a treadmill alleviated some of your stress. Indeed, one of the most common mental benefits of running is stress relief. Running can boost your body’s ability to deal with stress and it’s also a good distraction from any problems that are causing you stress or worry. It’s a natural solution to the “flight or fight” reaction we experience when dealing with stressful situations.

The rhythmic and repetitive nature of running can also be very relaxing and soothing. You can focus on your breathing and the sound of your footstrikes, and then begin to forget about whatever was bothering you. Running allows you to zone out and rebalance yourself after a stress-filled day.

2. Running Reduces Symptoms of Depression

Studies have shown that regular cardio exercise such as running can reduce the symptoms of depression.

Some forms of depression are caused in part by a deficiency of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Running helps the body create more of these "feel good" chemicals, which helps improve mood and outlook. Running also triggers the release of endorphins -- the body’s own natural antidepressant – which can lead to a feeling of euphoria, or runner’s high.

Patients with depression have reported lowered tension, reduced fatigue, and less confusion after beginning a regular running program. Running can also give people with depression something else to focus on, providing them with a distraction from their negative and depressive thoughts.

3. Running Reduces Anxiety

Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, reduce the body’s stress hormones, and elevate and stabilize moods. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. After an exercise session, people with anxiety have shown a decrease in activity of tensed muscles and have been less jittery and hyperactive. Running outdoors, with all the stimulation and distraction of natural beauty, can especially be a good antidote for anxiety.

4. Running Helps With Goal-Setting

Studies have found that goal-setting can be an important step in the recovery from mental illness. Setting goals can also improve your motivation and help you develop a regular running habit.

And, as feeling unprepared or disorganized can often lead to stress, a consistent running program can help add structure to your daily life and ease your stress.

When you head out for a run, you have an immediate goal. Finishing it gives you a feeling of accomplishment and a big confidence boost. You can also set weekly goals, such as running for 30 minutes at least three times a week or increasing your weekly mileage by 1-2 miles each week. Participating in a running race, such as a 5K, is an excellent goal to work towards. You may want to sign up for a spring race to help stay focused and motivated to keep running through the cold and dark winter months. Get ideas for running-related challenges and tips on how to set smart running goals.

5. Running Boosts Your Confidence

Running can be a huge confidence boost, especially if you’re a novice runner who’s seeing a lot of progress with your new habit. As you lose weight, add muscle, and improve your stamina, your self-image and self-esteem will improve.

As an individual sport, running requires you to rely on yourself to make progress and reach your goals. With each run, you'll be presented with another opportunity to use your motivation and determination to succeed. All of that practice leads to a stronger sense of self, which can help you better deal with the stresses of life.

Finishing a race or achieving some other running goal will encourage you to keep running and setting new goals. You'll discover a sense of control, discipline, determination and self-confidence as you take on new challenges. Your confidence and energy will help motivate you to pursue goals and achieve success in other areas of your life.

6. Running Helps Improve Sleep

People dealing with depression, stress, or anxiety often suffer from insomnia, which make their symptoms even worse. Running on a regular basis improves sleep quality as the transition between sleep cycles becomes more regular. As your stress is relieved through running, you’ll have an easier time falling asleep. You’ll also feel more tired at night, so you won’t be tossing and turning as much. And, as an additional benefit, better sleep can lead to improved running performance, since your body will have a better chance to rest and recover.

7. Running Encourages Social Interaction

Another way that running can help to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression is by interacting with other runners—either at running races, in the gym, or through running clubs.  Making new friends or strengthening bonds with current friends or family members can be an excellent social support system for those dealing with depression or anxiety. They can take comfort in knowing that others are dealing with the same stresses of daily life, and using running as an outlet.

The sense of community that runners feel when they’re interacting with other runners can also help them deal with anxiety that they may experience in other types of social situations. They'll also get a big motivation boost, as the social benefits of running are often major reasons why people stick with running.

8. Running Boosts Creativity

If you're feeling stuck on a problem or need to brainstorm, try going for a run. Not only will you feel more clear-headed once you start moving, but running or other forms of vigorous exercise can also boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards. If you're really looking for some major creative stimulation, choose an outdoor run over the treadmill.

9. Running Can Help Control Addiction

Running and other forms of exercise are often major components of addiction recovery programs. The improved self-esteem and self-confidence runners experience are extremely beneficial for recovering alcohol and drug addicts, as they face numerous challenges in their recovery.  Running can be an effective short-term distraction for their cravings. Recovering addicts may find themselves with a lot of free time, and running will help them feel productive and give their daily lives more  structure. Being part of a running community can also be beneficial for addicts who are seeking a new, healthier social network.

Sources:

Blanchette, David M., et al. (2005), "Aerobic Exercise and Cognitive Creativity: Immediate and Residual Effects", Creativity Research Journal, 17(2&3), 257-264.

Blumenthal, James, Ph.D., et. al. “Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?” ACSMs Health Fit Journal. 2012 July/August; 16(4): 14–21.

Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Men’s Health Watch (2011, February). “Exercising to relax”.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Physical Activity Reduces Stress” (2016)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). Chapter 2: Physical activity has many health benefits. In Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

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