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via Runner’s World

Learn about seven ways running goes beyond the physical advantages.

The advantages of running go well beyond your physical health; the sport works just as many wonders for your mental health and wellness. A 2020 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health associated running with improvements in a range of mental health outcomes and concluded that running has positive implications for various mental illnesses.

In the U.S. alone, approximately 23 percent of adults experienced a mental illness in 2021, defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. Running can be used as a tool to help alleviate the symptoms of those disorders and contribute to an improved mental state.

Running Helps Improve Your Mood

You can feel this particular benefit of running for mental health while still on the move or as soon as you finish your miles. Running releases endorphins in the brain, and these endorphins act as a painkiller during physical discomfort.

Thanks to the release of these feel-good hormones—which researchers explain our ancestors needed when running to catch prey or avoid predators—running can help your mind break out of a dark place and bring on positive thinking. All it takes to boost your endorphins is a run just long enough to push you out of your comfort zone.

Running Reduces Stress

One of the main culprits behind stress is a hormone called cortisol. When you feel stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol into your bloodstream in an increased amount. Ironically, the act of running is an additional stressor, activating stress response in your body and the release of cortisol, but, as we describe in our recent series on stress in the body, it’s a short-term surge that serves a larger purpose:

“Just like progressive training helps your body adapt to handle a higher load, increasing cortisol in your system helps your body adapt so it can better handle similar stressful situations in the future,” we wrote.

In the end, physical exercise helps your body return to its equilibrium. A small 2021 study published in Scientific Reports concluded that just 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running can help your brain regulate stress.

Running Helps Build Mental Resilience

Running is a great mental sport as it helps develop your mental toughness and resilience. A small study at Northern Arizona University concluded when people improved their fitness and exercised consistently, they had a lower stress response. Not only does running help deal with stress at the moment, but it also supports quicker rebound during future stressful moments and builds greater resilience in the long term.

Running Improves Brain Function

There are close to 100 billion nerve cells in your brain, connected by neurotransmitters.
Several studies suggest that exercise increases the function of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, best known for influencing happiness, sleep, memory, and more.

“By raising our neurotransmitters, exercise really makes a difference in the way we feel, and very importantly, we have control over the way we feel by moving our bodies,” said John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science on Exercise and the Brain.

Running Leads to Better Sleep

Sleep is critical for your mental health, while the lack of it has the power to worsen your mental well-being. Sleep plays a role in supporting your brain, heart and, overall health—and according to a 2023 research Runner’s World covered, potentially even how long you live.

While researchers don’t completely understand how precisely physical activity and sleep are linked, a 2023 systematic search confirmed that running can lead to improved sleep quality, making the miles you put in all the more worth it.

Running Supports Mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about living in the present moment, and research shows that practicing mindfulness can help manage mental health conditions.

“One of the goals of mindfulness when it comes to mental health is this idea of being able to pause, notice unhelpful thinking, reframe the thought, and move from there,” said Dwayne Brown, licensed clinical social worker who uses mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in his private practice to help those with mental health conditions. Through mindfulness, a person is more in control of their thinking, instead of their thinking being in control of them, Brown added. Being present and mindful contributes to a better mental state.

Running Is a Great Tool for Treating Mental Disorders

More than 50 million American adults experience mental illness, with half of them not receiving any treatment. As we mentioned, running can be part of your plan because it helps trigger the release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These feel-good chemicals are often depleted by mental disorders.

“We lose nerve cells, and exercise helps repopulate them and make them tougher, make them stronger so they can withstand the stresses of everyday life,” said Ratey.

Antidepressant drugs are based on helping fire neurotransmitters in your brain and increase their concentration as soon as you start taking them, Ratey said. But as explained above, the same can be achieved by incorporating running into your routine. In a 2023 study published by the Journal of Affective Disorders, more than 100 people with depression or anxiety were offered the option to take antidepressants or join a running program for 16 weeks. The study concluded that running worked just as well as the medication.

“Now, I would always encourage people to seek medical advice from a medical professional, it’s really important to make sure that you’re targeting your mental illness from all avenues,” said Lennie Waite, a certified mental performance consultant and Olympian. “But running is a great supplement to whatever else you’re doing to benefit your mental health.”

Running can support a range of mental disorders, including anxiety, the most common mental illness in the U.S., and depression, the leading disability in ages 15-44. But the benefits don’t stop there. Post-traumatic stress disorder is another one, which Runner’s World covered in detail in this article. And runners have been using the sport to manage other mental health conditions as well, including bipolar disorderADHD, the risk of dementia, or, for example, OCD.

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