Running is one of, if not the single most popular form of exercise in the world.
In fact, in 2017, the US alone had an estimated 47 million regular runners.
But why do we run?
The physical health benefits of running are well-established, such as boosting cardiovascular health, improved biological markers and even weight loss – but what about our mental health? How does running help us mentally, as well as physically?
As mental health slowly but surely, becomes less of a taboo subject and more of a daily conversation, studies in this field have also become more comprehensive – allowing us to delve deeper into the mental health benefits of running, and how lacing up and hitting the road, track or field may benefit us far more than just physically.
In this article, we'll run (excuse the pun) through the benefits of running on your mental health, considering studies and running approaches to help you reap the rewards of those daily, or weekly runs – for a healthier state of mind.
Here are some of the benefits that running can have on your mental health:
Reduction in symptoms of depression
Increased stress resilience
Improvement in the ability to relax
Lower risk of developing anxiety disorders
An increase in dopamine promotes a positive mood state
Can Running Make You Happier?
We definitely think so, but 'think' isn't good enough. Luckily, Dr Brendon Stubbs, a researcher at Kings College London, led a small-scale study that looked at three elite athletes and six everyday athletes.
With each participant wearing a headset, a baseline score was taken before 20-minute bouts of exercise were completed by participants. The results were impressive, with an 18% increase in participants' ability to relax, a 28% reduction in rash decision-making and a 29% improvement in stress resilience.
Highlighting the correlation between physical health and mental wellbeing, Dr Brendon Stubbs's research also indicated that the mental health benefits recorded for regular participants were greater than those of elite athletes.
Researchers at Lowa State University also noted findings that exercising for thirty minutes may reduce symptoms of anxiety, lasting for over seventy-five minutes post-exercise.
So yes, running may indeed make you happier.
Does Running Help With Anxiety?
It's long been considered that cardiovascular health and mental health could be linked, and a large-scale Swedish study has delivered further results that strengthen this argument.
The study looked at almost 400,000 participants over a 21-year period and highlighted a significantly lower risk of developing anxiety disorders when adopting a physically active lifestyle.
So running reduces anxiety, but there are a few things to note...
Firstly, the study was conducted with outdoor exercise, and therefore simply running indoors on a treadmill may not result in the same benefits.
Secondly, a greater reduction in the risk of anxiety was seen in participants taking part in low-intensity exercise (e.g. jogging), rather than in participants who exercised at a faster, more intense level (e.g. sprinting).
Lastly, and most importantly, these results were not achieved overnight. The study looked at long-term exercise participants, so don't expect any quick fixes, but consider the benefits of adapting to a physically active lifestyle.
It's also important to consider the training load of your running programme and to ensure you aren't pushing your body too far with each session. A recent study found that excessive exercise, or tougher training sessions, negatively impacted mood the following day.
What is Mindful Running?
Mindful running aka meditation for running, can mean something different to each of us, but in general, it is all about taking our minds to a place free from distractions and away from daily life, to focus on being present and mindful, with a closer awareness of our breathing and body.
Mindful running should be a stress-free, zen-like experience that relaxes the mind connecting it wholesomely with the body.
A study looking at the combination of mediation and aerobic exercise found an improvement in cognitive mental outcomes, with individuals reporting significantly less depressive symptoms and ruminative thoughts.
Some people can do this with nothing but the rhythm of their feet striking the pavement, but for others, we can aid our mindful running through the use of audio and phone applications to guide our way through the workout.
During your next run, throw on a pair of headphones (not too loud!) and try listening to guided meditations. You may find the run becomes much easier, and more comfortable, as you challenge your mind to think differently.
Some of our favourite guided mindful running apps include:
Limits To Running For Your Mental Health
There is no prescription for running, and although studies show positive correlations between physical exercise and mental wellbeing, it's important to remember that the responses to exercise can vary greatly amongst individuals – and therefore if you are looking for ways to improve your mental health, talking to someone in the know will be the best first step.
. . .
If you need, or want help with your mental health, speak to a professional for expert guidance and advice. Don't know where to start? Check out Gymshark Deload.