In My “Running For Mental Health” Era: 6 Ways Running Can Reduce Depression And Anxiety

Briana Welch LCMHC Running Valentine's Heartbreaker Marathon Feb. 2024

Exercise is one of the most beneficial, natural and effective coping skills for reducing symptoms associated with anxiety , depression and managing stress. As both a runner and a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Therapist, I’ll be one of the first to advocate for the benefits of running on your overall mental wellbeing. May marks the beginning ofMental Health Awareness” month and brings with it the perfect opportunity to share about the positive impact that running can have on mental health!

Here are six ways Running can improve your overall mental well being : 

Running can stabilize your Mood.

Most of us know that we feel great after finishing a run but do you know exactly why that is? When you run, your body releases hormones called endorphins. These endorphins are responsible for the infamous “runner’s high”. Running also has an antidepressant effect on the body due to its ability to increase the amount of norepinephrine (a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress) available to your brain. Just 10 minutes of moderate intensity running is significant enough to create these positive effects on your mood!

Running enhances sleep quality 

Sleep is one of the best known recovery tools. While many of us complain of getting too little sleep, there is a surefire way to improve the quality of sleep you do get: go for a run! Studies have shown exercise can serve as a behavioral therapy to aid in improving sleep and increasing extended deep sleep. People who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night! 

One caveat here: timing is crucial. If you’re an evening runner, give yourself 1-2 hours to wind down after your run or you may find that your run will have the exact opposite effect.

Exercise increases motivation and mental strength 

 Research shows that people who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than their peers who are less active. In addition, when you set out to run, whether it’s a mile or a marathon, you are setting a goal. Running further and faster than you ever have can help give you a sense of pride, accomplishment and increase your self esteem.  As an avid early bird runner, I also notice immediately after running my mind is clearer, my thoughts are more rational and I gained a greater sense of confidence and resilience in challenging negative thought patterns. These are all small wins that I get to carry with me throughout my day.

Aerobic exercise can prevent cognitive decline .

Exercising, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning. A study by Cambridge University reports that a healthy routine with regular exercise increases the volume of the hippocampus, a key part of the brain’s memory. Running can strengthen our brain muscles over time and improve our memory and thinking skills!

Becoming familiar with physical stress can help foster better self control.

A few of the symptoms associated with anxiety are high heart rates, sweating and shortness of breath. When your body becomes familiar with how to regulate itself during high intensity exercise such as running , it can foster greater self awareness and enhanced ability to manage your breath and other physical symptoms that accompany anxiety. Thus, the regular practice of running can help to reduce the frequency and the severity of these occurrences.

Exercise can foster healthy social connections .

Social well-being is a key component of promoting healthy emotional regulation. Whether you decide to participate in a running event, run with a friend or join a local running group or club , all of these create opportunities that encourage us to feel more bonded and connected to others.  From casual brunch runs to relay races, destination run-cations and everything in between, I have made so many memories with my fellow runner friends and it has been essential to my social life!  A great way to get to know your fellow track club members is to join one of the many running groups that meet around Winston Salem throughout the week. You can find out more about when and where groups are meeting by joining the TCTC group on Facebook and Strava or liking the TCTC page on Instagram.

By making running a regular part of your routine, you are helping to combat symptoms of depression & anxiety, reduce stress, increase your motivation and improve your brain health.   No matter your age or fitness level, you can incorporate running as a powerful tool to deal with mental health problems, build meaningful social connections and improve your overall outlook and quality of life. 

Note : This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Research Sources:

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