How running can improve your mental health

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How running can improve your mental health How running can improve your mental health How running can improve your mental health

We’re all well-aware that the aerobic exercise provided by running is a great boon for your physical health, but it’s perhaps less widely known that running has been proven to have tremendous benefits for your mental health as well. It’s always good to get out of the house and into the open air – but the positive effects of running actually go much deeper.

The way our bodies react when we run produces a number of chemical reactions that have an extraordinary power to positively enhance mental wellbeing. As a result of the various hormones and neurotransmitters released during exercise, it’s possible to experience feelings of stress reduction, alleviation of depression and anxiety symptoms, improved mood, better sleep and overall enhanced cognitive function.

Here’s the inside story of the effects on your mind and body when you go for a run.

Natural stress relief

You might notice that you feel considerably more relaxed after you’ve gone for a run, and that’s because, during your run, your body is releasing endorphins: nature’s stress reliever. They are also known as ‘feel-good’ hormones, because of the sense of well-being and relaxation that they induce.

As a result, sticking to a running schedule provides a regular outlet for the relief of tension and anxiety – and the physical exertion that you undergo releases pent-up energy, reducing the likelihood that you’ll feel restless and making you feel generally calmer. Some people even believe that the rhythmic nature of running can lull you into a meditative state that clears your mind and helps prevent thoughts racing through your head.

All these benefits together mean that making running a regular part of your routine is likely to lead to a significant reduction in stress levels, which in turn leads to an overall improved mental state.

Tackling symptoms of depression 

Scientific studies have repeatedly demonstrated a link between regular running and a reduction in the symptoms of depression, such as sadness, hopelessness, fatigue and anxiety.

The reasons for this are at least partly chemical; the physical exercise provided by running stimulates the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine – organic compounds that play a vital role in regulating mood. People with depression are sometimes prescribed medication to increase levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin; running can help in achieving this by releasing these neurotransmitters naturally.

Additionally, the fact that – as mentioned above – running can help alleviate stress and anxiety means that you are reducing two of the symptoms that can often exacerbate or trigger the effects of depression.

Boosting your mood

On top of the relaxing effects of the endorphins produced by running, endorphins are also known to have a euphoric effect – one that is so commonly experienced when running that it has been given its own name: ‘runner’s high’. This is described as a short-lasting, deeply euphoric state that follows intense exercise.

There are other reasons that running improves mood as well, though. People with a regular running routine are providing themselves with a greater number of opportunities to observe their own progress and achieve personal goals, which in turn promotes confidence, self-esteem and body positivity.

The mere fact that you are outdoors when running also means that you are putting yourself in a situation where you are exposed to sunlight, fresh air and nature – all of which have been linked in multiple studies to heightening mood and a reduction in symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

A better night’s sleep

Anyone who takes part in regular physical exercise such as running is more likely to enjoy a better sleep pattern, with a reduction in the time it takes to fall asleep and an increase in the overall duration of sleep. This is because exercises like running help regulate your body’s circadian rhythm, which means you will have a more optimally balanced sleep-wake cycle.

The fact that you are relatively physically exhausted after a run also helps you to enter a deeper sleep, which is more physically and mentally beneficial and enables you to wake up feeling more refreshed.

Quality of sleep is a major factor in mental wellbeing, because this is when the brain gets to rest and process emotions that have been experienced during the day. Those who run are setting themselves up for improved mental health by increasing the chances of starting their mornings feeling energised, rejuvenated and better prepared to face the day.

Improved brain function

Aerobic exercises like running increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, which in turn stimulates the growth of new neurons and enhances neural connections. Studies have found that this can benefit facets of good cognitive function such as memory and attention span, thereby leading to enhanced problem-solving skills, increased creativity and better decision-making.

Some studies have even shown running to be associated with a decreased risk of cognitive decline and age-related cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

A sense of community

Although some people will prefer to run alone, many enjoy running in the company of friends, or even as part of a larger community such as parkrun, which enables people to meet and run together in more than 1,000 locations all over the world.

Running with a friend or in a group can benefit mental health by providing an avenue for social connection, reducing feelings of isolation and promoting a sense of belonging. At the same time, it creates a supportive community in which people can egg one another on and experience similar challenges and achievements together.

This is a surefire way to boost motivation, as fellow runners can inspire each other to push their limits and reach their goals, providing a sense of confidence and desire to stick to the running routine – something which is somewhat harder to do when you’re trying to motivate yourself!