While the physical benefits of running are well-established, there is plenty of evidence to suggest running can improve your mental health, too. Running has been a large part of managing my own well-being over the years, and I expect many other runners would say the same. So what are some of the mental health benefits of running?
As far back as I can remember, I've always dealt with depression and anxiety. It's just sort of something my brain does. It's also likely a major reason why I was drawn to running and fitness in general at a relatively young age. While not fully understanding why, I knew that I felt better when I was active.
But the mental health benefits of running have also been established by an impressive and ever-growing body of scientific work, which continues to strengthen the idea that running is good for both body and mind. Let's explore some of the exciting recent findings.
The idea of "blowing off steam" through exercise goes way back for one excellent reason: it works. Ever have a challenging day and feel like you just need to run? Then once you do, you feel lighter and better prepared to handle whatever stress you're dealing with? Personally, I can feel the difference in my thinking if I haven't been able to keep up with my running schedule. In fact, when my anxiety and depression noticeably worsen, my wife will usually ask me how my runs have been. What's actually going on here? Why does this work?
First, we need to address the obvious — running gives you a break from whatever is going on in the wider world around you and provides a quiet, mindful experience (we like to call it Runfulness). Sometimes all you need to feel better is just to separate yourself from a situation for a little while. And running is a perfect way to do that. But the amazing gift that is running doesn't stop there — much more is at work in your brain.
For a long time, common fitness knowledge said that the stress-reducing effects of a good run were the work of chemicals called endorphins, which are known to reduce pain and enhance performance in muscles. That's an important distinction. According to David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, those endorphins likely aren't the cause of this particular mental benefit of running, since they can't actually cross the blood-brain barrier. This means they probably have little-to-no impact on what's going on in your head. Instead, Linden suggests that endocannabinoids — a group of neurotransmitters that travel in and around the brain — really deserve the credit.
Once they get into the brain, endocannabinoids have the incredible ability to reduce feelings of anxiety and encourage calm. As you likely guessed, endocannabinoids are produced in higher-than-normal concentrations during your runs. While you're out running, these lovely little chemicals are actively working to soothe your stress and keep you calm.
But what about when your run is over? After all, the things causing you stress might very well still be waiting for you back at home. Never fear — neuroscience is here.
According to researchers from the University of Maryland, regular exercise can actually rewire the way your brain reacts to stressful situations and make you better prepared to handle these challenges in the long term. What's more, a study published in Health Psychology examined the emotional stability of over 2,000 American adults and compared it with their level of activity. In short, the researchers wanted to see how regular exercise impacted how people dealt with stress. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team found that individuals who were regularly active had greater emotional stability and were more likely to maintain a positive viewpoint even during stressful events.
Running not only reduces your immediate stress, but makes your brain better able to deal with future stress. It's not a massive logical leap to see how this could improve your mood.
Again, the mental health benefits of running go even further. Although the exact mechanism isn't fully understood yet, there is an emerging body of research to indicate that regular exercise, including running, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. As Professor Linden notes, "Exercise has a dramatic antidepressive effect. It blunts the brain's response to physical and emotional stress."
Consider, for example, a 2020 study from the Revista Argentina de Clínica Psicológica, an Argentinian journal that covers a range of clinical psychology topics, which showed that regular long-distance running greatly improved major depression in both male and female college students. Interestingly, this study broke depression into multiple components and then compared the intensity of these symptoms during periods of regular running and inactivity. Overwhelmingly, the runners felt more confident in social situations, had a greater sense of accomplishment, slept better, and were able to focus more on their work.
This brings us to something worth discussing — the benefits of setting and achieving your running goals. A well-designed running program can lead you through progressive goals and, as you conquer each, your confidence and sense of satisfaction can grow, furthering the mental health benefits of running.
A general brain boost
Finally, there is some solid evidence to suggest that a running routine can actually make your brain an even more incredible thinking machine than it already is. In fact, numerous studies, including research from the American Physiological Society, have shown that running stimulates an impressive-sounding process known as neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells.
Think about that! Running literally makes your brain grow. This growth has been more noticeable in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. As a result, running has been shown to improve memory, focus, and creative thinking while even slowing cognitive decline.
Clearly, the mental health benefits of running are wide-reaching and well-established. Running not only gives you a break from the stress of life and helps you enjoy the satisfaction of reaching your goals, but the sport can also restructure your brain in such a way that it functions better, faster, and with less stress. Whether your goals are physical, mental, or both, running has you covered.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
My interest in fitness started young, primarily as the survival strategy of a scrawny asthmatic. After receiving my certifications as a personal trainer and nutritionist, I started writing fitness articles. At this point, running is a non-negotiable part of my life.