Whether it’s the jokes about running replacing therapy or the elusive “runner’s high,” we seem to know that running is good for us not just physically but mentally too. How exactly does it help though? This article will discuss some of the obvious – and some of the not-so-obvious – reasons to get out the door and get moving. Lace up and learn!
Running literally effects your body. We know it strengthens your legs and your lungs, making you stronger through your muscular and cardiovascular systems. But did you know it also helps your brain? Running releases endorphins and naturally-produced endocannabinoids in your blood stream.
Endocannabinoids help calm the anxious mind, and exercise blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stressors.
Studies have found that running may be just as good as medication for reducing anxiety, and just as good as traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy for reducing depression. Even just ten minutes is enough to reap these benefits!
Tied into the benefits to your brain, you get even more benefit if you run outside! Vitamin D is produced by your body as a result of spending time in the sunlight, and it leads to reduced symptoms of depression. Being in “green space” like parks, forests, trails, etc. has been shown to prevent and reduce mental health problems like mood disorders, depression, and stress-related issues. The more time you spend around green plants and the like, the more of these benefits you get.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s some “behind the scenes” benefits of running on mental health that deserve discussion.
Running offers the potential for routine. Let me caveat this by saying it doesn’t have to. If you run at 6:00 a.m. one day and 1:00 p.m. the next and 9:00 p.m. the next, kudos to you! You are still getting out there; you are still putting in the work; you are strong! What I’m talking about is the benefits accruing to those who have put in place a routine, whether that’s because that works for their schedule, their life demands, or their preference. Having a routine means you have a “go-to.” If you hit a rough day mentally, you don’t have to make the decision of whether and when to run. When depression is kicking you in the gut and it’s hard to get out of bed, you have a calendar appointment. One that’s for you. One that reminds you - you’re worth the time, you’re worth the effort, you’re valuable and beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Running also creates a space for community. Case in point: this group has people from all over the world rooting for each other. The Facebook group is a place to share struggles and joys, to glean support and celebration. You may also want in-person community, and running provides a shared interest to bring like-minded people together. Mental illness screams at us that we are alone; running gives us a community that laughs at such a ludicrous suggestion. If you don’t have in person community and are looking for it, one of the best ways is to find your local running store. Most have weekly group runs, and they also know of other groups you can connect with.
Running also teaches us to control what we can and let go of what we cannot control. The weather might be cold and gray and raining, but you can still decide to go out and run. We cannot chose our circumstances, but we can choose our actions. Refuse to be stopped. Splash in a puddle. Get some cute cold-weather gloves. The world around you might be gray, but you can find the beauty in it. Bravely. Defiantly. Including the beauty in your own indomitable spirit.
Finally, running teaches you that you can do hard things. When depression is yelling at you. When anxiety is making your brain shake. When the PTSD demons are clawing at your door. Running says, “Look at what you can do. Look at all the times you’ve wanted to give up and didn’t. Look at all that you have conquered.” Yes, it’s just a run. But it’s not about the run. It’s about the runner. It’s about who you are molding yourself to be. You are proving yourself to be a fighter, to be a champion, to be a fire-starter. Shine on, my friends.
Emily Labutta is a runner pursuing her Master’s Degree to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. She worked as a criminal prosecutor for years, but found the law to be too analytical with not enough heart. She co-founded a literary magazine during college and went on to law school where she edited several scholarly articles for legal journals, and to publish her own work as well. She has published a book of poetry on Amazon.com and can usually be found chasing trails and silver linings.