It’s well known that exercise is good for our overall mental and physical health. There’s several personal testimonies out there from people sharing how running’s helped them manage their depression, anxiety, or addiction difficulties. Frequent running is my main way of managing life stress and I notice a difference when I can’t run. More recently, online running magazine, Dure started an initiative, Running for Solace, promoting the mental health benefits of running. Here, runners share their experiences of running and how it’s helped through some difficult times.
But how does running help mental health? Let’s have a look at some ways running regularly and frequently helps elevate mood, increase wellbeing and heighten the probability of feeling happy and fulfilled.
Aside from the well documented runners high, taking up running lays down new neural pathways. Research on those who run regularly, at a moderate intensity, suggests there are positive changes in learning and memory. Brain scans have shown runners to have greater connectivity in the frontal parietal part of the brain which is associated with working memory and self control. It’s thought that when we’re on the move, we’re more cognitively engaged and aware. Just think of all the thoughts and feelings that are processed during a run, and how much more aware we have to be of our surroundings.
Interestingly, those who sprinted on a regular basis had sharper planning and organisational skills, while those who used intervals as part of their training showed an increase in cognitively flexibility compared to non-runners. It certainly pays to run as you get older too. It’s these areas of the brain that naturally shrink and decline in functioning between the ages of 60 – 70. It’s possible that running counteracts some of these changes.
I’ve often wondered if there’s a point where running doesn’t have such positive effects on the brain. A sample of ultra runners showed up to an 8% shrinkage in brain size following an event. This is considerable when you realise shrinkage with age is about 0.2% per year. Don’t worry if you’re planning on running an ultra though. Over a number of months, the shrinkage was found to be reversible – phew!
I’m convinced the very action of moving forward evokes the experience of making progress, regardless of what’s on your mind. It involves looking and thinking ahead which in itself can be cathartic. As thoughts come and go, whatever they are, running naturally allows for mindfulness. Those moments where we connect with the motion and movement, alongside the sensory experiences afforded from being outside, work wonders for our mental health. When we run, we naturally attune to our body. The cadence and rhythm of our running provides a sense of regulation too.
The main protective factor against depression is having good social networks and support. Why? Because it’s part of human nature to want to connect and be with others. That’s why running with friends or being part of a running community can be such a positive experience and help bolster our emotional wellbeing.
It’s not just about the friendships and connection. Think of what it’s like to have a joint goal that you’re all aiming for and how you each help and encourage one another to get there. Making your running social will enhance your motivation. I’ve lost count how many times me and a running friend pushed each other along some gruelling stretches of coastpath. Despite the discomfort, we always thank each other afterwards, knowing that if we were alone, we may not have managed it so well.
When depression and/or anxiety have you in their grips, doing anything feels like a big step. For some, getting out of bed is the starting point. If you’re suffering and you’re ready to take the next step, try lacing up your trainers and step outside. You don’t have to run or go very far. Taking that step will be your achievement. Exercise has routinely been found to decrease the symptoms and experience of depression. A recent study found runners who attended regular Parkruns were generally happier. Runners who used Strava showed a similar result so having a virtual running community is beneficial too.
What’s your experience of running? Do you find you’re happier when running regularly, or has it helped you manage your mental health?
Photos by Conan Marshall.