Not only can running help optimize your physical health, but there are strong indications that running can significantly improve your mental health as well. I discovered this first hand when in 6 months I lost 80 pounds, overcame severe anxiety and depression, and was able to take back control of my life, all by running a 5K distance (and sometimes less) daily. I’ve outlined some benefits that running can have for your mental health, as well as a few fun ways to mix up your running routine!
3 Major Mental Health Benefits From Running
The first thing you think of when it comes to running is likely not that it will decrease anxiety or depression, as most people equate exercise to better physical health rather than mental health. As the science world dives further into the mysteries of the mind, we are finding that working out and running in particular are changing lives by helping the body regulate chemicals in the brain and body as a whole to improve mental health.
1) Improves Quality and Duration of Sleep
Sleep is an essential practice that we all engage in daily, and without it we tend to wither away rather quickly. It’s extremely important in the building of muscle and giving ourselves time for the body to repair itself. Surprise, surprise, it also is very important to our mental health. This Johns Hopkins article dives into how running is a very physically enduring activity and allows us to have deeper, longer sleep sessions that allow us to better regulate chemical messengers in the brain. This regulation allows us to decrease the chances of having severe anxiety and depression, while also improving our alertness during the day.
2) Repairs Neurotransmitters in the Brain
Neurodegeneration is often a happenstance of aging, and we find it particularly in patients with diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. However, with the increased dependence on the pharmaceutical industry, many popular stimulants such as Adderall, Dexedrine, or Vyvanse are being prescribed regularly and can cause a progressive loss of neurons in the brain and degeneration of mental health as a whole. We also find that long term drug abusers have a significantly elevated risk in neurodegeneration when using substances like Methamphetamine.
Thankfully there are solutions for repairing damaged neurons, and running is very high up on that list! The neurotransmitters that are usually the most effected by neurodegeneration involve dopamine and serotonin regulation. An imbalance in these two chemical messengers directly effect memory retention, metabolism, and overall mental health. In this NCBI publication, they show the positive correlation of running to building back serotonin and dopamine terminals in the brain for recovering stimulant addicts which is extremely promising!
3) Improves Mental Sharpness and Ability to Retain/Build Knowledge
The Psychonomic Bulletin & Review released a number of their findings pertaining to running improving the ability to multitask, increasing selective attention, and improving day to day working memory. Within this study they also released the effects that running can have on recovering stroke patients, more impressively boasting that their memory, cognitive function, and judgement improved nearly 50% more than those who did not engage in running during treatment. Attached is a video where Dr. Rhonda Patrick dives into some of the specifics that running can have on mental sharpness.
3 Ways to Get Out There and Keep Things Interesting With Your Runs
I get it, not everybody loves running, but believe it or not there are ways to tolerate it, if not downright enjoy your runs if you know how to mix them up. If you love watching television, get yourself off the couch and start running on a treadmill in front of the tube. Excuses are replete in the cardio world, but there are an equal amount of ways to make your runs fun, as well as beneficial to your mental health. Below I’ve listed a few different ways that I’ve been able to keep my running interesting over the years, and help maximize the potential for increasing mental wellness at the same time:
1) Nature Trail Running
Anyone who has run on a treadmill in the same gym, day after day knows just how monotonous this activity can become. Most people even write off cardio as the bane of their workout regiment. I say throw that notion out the door literally, and go find a park that better suites your running needs. Thankfully I live close to a number of state parks as well as city parks that have well documented and maintained trails. Not everyone is so lucky, and for those people I say get out to the country roads and start hauling. If you know people who have private land, ask their permission and walk the property to find trails that aren’t treacherous.
Nature is sanative, refining, elevating. How cunningly she hides every wrinkle of her inconceivable antiquity under roses, and violets, and morning dew! Every inch of the mountains is scarred by unimaginable convulsions, yet the new day is purple with the bloom of youth and love.-Ralph Waldo Emerson
The idea here is that you’re breaking away from the same old routine of running on a rubber track or concrete sidewalk. There is a popular Japanese practice called “shinrin yoku” or forrest bathing (not literal bathing) in which the Japanese government heavily encourages their citizens to go hiking on their 3000+ miles of trails. It was introduced in the 1980s, and was quickly adopted as a popular form of alternative therapy.
Within this Quartz article, after an in depth study, the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University released that “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.” Long story short, spending time in nature makes you feel better physically and mentally, and there’s science to prove it.
2) Find Some Motivating Tunes
Running is not always a quick activity, as you can hammer out a quick mile or train for a marathon. If you do the math, 10 miles at 8 minute mile pace will take close to an hour and a half, so what are you going to do with all this newfound time on your hands? My answer is to find music that you love and run with it. There’s nothing more exhausting than the constant sound of heavy breathing and your feet hitting the pavement. Music is great at drowning out external noise, helping to keep a consistent pace, and boosting endorphins. Podcasts are also a great option if you’re trying to pick up some knowledge on the fly!
Create your own playlist or use someone else’s on Spotify to help give yourself an edge. Catering your music choices to the weather is also a great way to stay on top of your game and add the addition fuel to crank out your run on a gloomy day. If you’re running with a friend or a group, you can even collaborate on a playlist and sync the music when going for long runs. Some may argue that running with music may defeat the purpose of running with others, but then again if you ever have found yourself in a long distance group run, very little discussion is happening around the 3 mile mark.
Below is one of the more popular running playlists on Spotify. You can see that the BPM listed helps you gauge whether or not this playlist will be right for you. Age, height, and overall ability will dictate your key BPM, especially while running with others. Find a pace that works for you, and then find a corresponding grouping of songs that won’t drain your energy or drag you when trying to shoot for a goal mile time.
3) Track Your Progress With New Routes
I’ll be the first to say that hitting the ground running *pun intended* isn’t a reality for most people. Running, distance running in particular, is not something that everyone can just be great at right off the get go. It takes time and practice, but most people can excel at it if they are willing to put in the work. Benchmark progress by establishing a basic route, and then peppering in subtle deviations from that route that extend your distance, or increase the difficulty of the run. From an achievement perspective you’ll be increasing your investment in your workout, and from a mental perspective you won’t have to have repetitive runs that you’ll grow tired of and potentially stop doing.
Websites like mapmyrun are a great way to track your distance, as well as plan new routes for future runs. Variety is the spice of life, and you should take full advantage of your surroundings. If you live in a city, pushing yourself a block further than before may even be a significant achievement in and of itself. Personally I started with a mile here and there, and added another block every day until my one mile run became a 5+ mile run daily within a few months. It’s sounds crazy, but it is usually the human spirit that is crushed before stamina is.