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running and mental health

15 Mental Health Benefits of Running

Whether you’re a cardio champion or a sprinting beginner, you may have heard that there are mental health benefits of running. Of course, the physical effects of cardio workouts have been long documented, but it’s also important to explore the mental health benefits of running workouts, especially in our stressful modern world. 

In our comprehensive guide to the mental benefits of running, we’ll discuss exactly how running helps mental health, including some surprising and awe-inspiring advantages that may completely change your perception of running!

Read on to find out more!

Contents

Alternatively, if you’re already aware of the array of advantages associated with running, and are looking to take it to the next level, then perhaps one of our formally accredited personal training courses is the next step on your fitness journey!

Or, if you’re not sure quite yet, download our FREE prospectus, and learn more about what we offer, and how it could be right for you!

What Happens To Your Body On A Run?

running and mental health

On a run, the physical effects are immediately recognisable - our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes faster, and we start to sweat. Over time, cardiovascular exercises like running are incredibly effective for weight loss and staying in shape. 

In terms of the mental health benefits of running, these are less noticeable, but no less important. When running, our brain starts to release endorphins, which are the chemicals that relieve pain and stress, meaning we can keep running and push past goals that might’ve seemed impossible.

Running can also release serotonin, which is another of the chemicals in our brains - this one regulates our mood, which essentially means that as we run, we become happier and more content. 

We’re going to go into a lot more detail in our next section on what exactly the mental benefits of running are!

What Are The Mental Benefits of Running?

In this section we’ll be exploring exactly running and mental health are interlinked, how running is incredibly effective in so many areas of the brain, and what exactly you can expect when you start running for your mental health.

#1 - Reduces Symptoms of Depression 

mental effects of running

Is running good for mental health?

Well, you might be interested to know that one of the biggest benefits of running for mental health is that it can actually help reduce your symptoms and feelings of depression! 

Research has found that, in combination with the right kinds of therapy, running can improve mood, and reduce the symptoms of clinical depression by a significant amount.

According to a study conducted by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, spending 30 minutes on the treadmill is enough to actually help lift the mood of someone who’s suffering from major depressive disorder! They found that even participants who moved at a walking pace experienced a similar mood-boost too! 

Two of the most common symptoms of depression are the inability to concentrate and a lack of motivation. Both of these behaviours are controlled by the hippocampus. Brain scans on people with depression have found that they have a shrunken hippocampus. 

Running, however, creates new neurons in the hippocampus, with some studies showing that running can help enlarge a hippocampus in as little as six months! This one of the main reasons why exercise is the first line of depression treatment in many countries worldwide. 

The main takeaway from this point is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re running or just walking briskly, all exercise has a positive effect on the human brain and can help reduce any feelings of depression that you may be suffering from! 

And if you’re just starting off your running journey, check out our guide to the Best Running Gear to ensure you’re putting the right foot forward.

#2 - Helps Alleviate Stress & Anxiety

running benefits for mental health

Another of the mental benefits of running is that it can help alleviate your stress and anxiety! 

Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life, but anxiety disorders are one of the most common psychiatric illnesses worldwide, with the American Psychiatric Association finding that 30% of adults worldwide are affected by the disorder in their lifetime. 

The benefits of running and exercise may extend beyond stress relief to actually improving anxiety and other related disorders! 

Even just a 10-minute walk has been found to be almost as effective as a 45-minute workout when it comes to relieving symptoms of anxiety. Though the effects may be temporary, a brisk walk or run can deliver hours of relief, acting in a similar way to taking an aspirin for a headache. 

It’s been proven that people who are physically active and who go on runs have lower rates of anxiety than people who don’t work out. Furthermore, running (or another form of vigorous exercise) has been found to reduce the chances of developing an anxiety disorder by 25% over the next 5 years!

When you go for a run or work out, your brain releases hormones known as endorphins. Endorphins provide you with a short-lasting euphoric feeling. This ‘natural high’ can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety while you run, leaving you feeling calm and stress-free.

And keep that stress at bay with a calming soundscape - our list of the Best Bluetooth Running Headphones has plenty of choice for all your musical needs!

#3 - Prevents Cognitive Decline 

running helps mental health

Preventing cognitive decline is yet another of the many mental health benefits of running! 

Whilst running unfortunately won’t cure Alzheimer’s, it may help boost the brain’s ability to slow the cognitive decline that begins after the age of 45. 

Working out and running, especially between the ages of 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent the degeneration of the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a major role in memory and learning. As we age the hippocampus starts to shrink, which can cause someone to develop Alzheimer’s disease. 

This shrinkage of the hippocampus usually happens between the ages of 60 and 70. 

According to a systematic research review in the British Medical Journal, scientists found that running acts as a buffer against the ageing effects of the brain. The aim of the study conducted by scientists was to learn what was better for the ageing brain: exercise (such as running) or brain games. 

The scientists found that running was better for the ageing brain, on the basis of brain scans showing a lower rate of cognitive decline and brain shrinkage in elderly test subjects who were physically active than those who weren’t. 

To slow down brain ageing and lessen your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, it is highly recommended that you exercise on a regular basis. Whilst it may not be a cure for the disease, running can definitely play an important part in slowing down and even preventing its development! 

And even if you’re a running beginner, it’s easy to get started, especially in our digital age. OriGym's guide to the Best Running Apps For Beginners will help you get moving!

#4 - Boosts Brain Power

is running good for mental health

Another positive benefit running has for your mental health is that it can give your brainpower a much-needed boost and improve its overall performance! 

Cardiovascular exercise, such as running, can help create new brain cells, improving overall brain performance. A particularly tough run can increase levels of a brain-derived protein in the body which is believed to help with higher thinking, learning, and decision-making. 

Running also improves blood flow to our brains, meaning more oxygenated blood coursing to exactly where your body needs it. More oxygen means clearer thinking, better problem solving, and overall boosted brainpower.

In fact, a study conducted by the University of Calgary found that regular running can improve your cognitive function as you get older, and the benefits can be felt in a matter of months! 

The study found that running and doing other aerobic exercises regularly for 6 months boosted brain function by up to 5.7%. The research also discovered a significant improvement in verbal fluency, which is equivalent to being 5 years younger! 

The take-away from this study is that it doesn’t matter when you start exercising, the benefit on your brain may be immense, even if you start running later in life. 

The main thing to remember is that it is never too late to start exercising so that you can reap the huge range of benefits from the boost in brainpower that running gives you! And you can put that brainpower to great use in our quiz that asks you: How Much Do YOU Know About Fitness?

#5 - Helps Improve Sleep 

mental health and running

Another way running helps your mental health is by improving your quality of sleep! 

For some people, a moderate run can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill. Moving around 5 to 6 hours before bedtime raises your body’s core temperature. When your core temperature drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals to the body that it’s time to sleep. 

By training your body with exercise and plenty of rest afterwards, your body begins to adjust to a routine involving a good amount of exercise (in this case, a run) and then rest before shutting down for sleep. 

Studies suggest that exercise, such as running, not only helps improve the quality of your sleep but also helps you fall asleep faster too! In a study from 2010, researchers found that those who did 3 days a week of aerobic exercise for 16 weeks saw them sleep for an extra 45 minutes per night! 

Researchers at the John Hopkins Centre for Sleep have also found that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave (or deep) sleep you get. This is when the body and brain have a chance to rejuvenate and refresh, repairing damaged cells and creating new ones, too!

If you engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as running and brisk walking, per day, you may be able to see a difference in your sleep quality that same night! 

It is advised, however, that you don’t exercise right before bed. When we exercise, our brains release endorphins, which create a level of activity in the brain that can keep you awake. It is recommended that you exercise some 2 hours before bedtime - we’d recommend reading a good running book - so that your endorphin levels have time to wash out so that your brain has time to wind down. 

#6 - Improves Your Learning Abilities 

does running improve mental health

Arguably one of the most important mental effects of running is that by doing it regularly you may actually see an improvement in your learning abilities! 

In a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory in 2007, researchers found that high-intensity running, in the form of anaerobic sprints, and low-impact running can improve your capacity to learn and retain new information and vocabulary. These benefits seem to be more pronounced in high-intensity running. 

The same study found that both forms of running (high-intensity and low-impact) boosted levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein found in the brain. Running also boosted levels of the neurotransmitter catecholamine too. Both that and BDNF are heavily associated with the brain’s cognitive and learning functions, so the more of it you have, the more of an improvement in your learning abilities that you’re going to experience! 

So the next time you have a big test coming up or you need to study, maybe you should go for a quick jog first? You never know, it might actually help you remember all the new information you’re going to be learning! 

And if you’re a night owl, put that boosted learning ability to good use and read up on our tips and tricks for safely running at night!

#7 - Improves Memory

running mental health benefits

Another way running helps your mental health is by helping improve your memory! 

Running prompts the brain to grow fresh grey matter, which has a huge impact on your mental ability. 

It was discovered that, after just a few days of running, there was a significant growth of thousands of new brain cells that improved the ability to recall memories without confusing them. This skill is crucial for learning and other cognitive tasks. 

The new brain cells that were grown appeared in a region that is linked to the formation and recollection of memories. This proved to the researchers that running and other aerobic exercises can not only improve memory but can potentially slow down the deterioration of cognitive function that happens with age, as we’ve already discussed. 

In another study, this one conducted on rats, researchers found that subjecting elderly rats to 5 minutes of treadmill running several times a week over the course of 5 weeks saw a surge in the production of BDNF in the memory centre of the rat’s brain. 

This led to results on rodent memory tests that were similar to those for younger rats. Whilst more human research is clearly needed, this is a promising result! 

Exercise helps neurons connect and communicate with each other. This enhanced communication plays a vitally important role in developing and consolidating memory traces within the brain.

So the next time you have to study for a test, consider going for a quick run first! But don’t forget to bring along your favourite running gear - OriGym's list of the Best Running Accessories has something for everyone!

#8 - Calms Your Mind and Helps You Relax

running mental benefits

Another positive effect running has on mental health is that it can help calm your mind, giving you the opportunity to relax. 

Many runners claim that going for a run has a calming effect, helping their brains reduce feelings of worry and stress that are usually at the forefront. It seems that there is some scientific evidence to back these claims up too, which is great news for anyone looking for ways to calm an overactive mind. 

The journal Experimental Brain Research found that running was associated with a reduction in activity in the frontal cortex of the brain during a six-hour run. Additionally, for the first hour of the run, the participants reported feeling relaxed and an increased sense of ‘flow’ as they ran. 

As we already know, when you run your brain releases endorphins, which can give you a natural high. These euphoric feelings that the hormones released provide you with can also have a positive effect on helping calm your mind, as well as provide you with an opportunity to feel relaxed and stress-free as you run.  

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out and just need to chill out, perhaps going for a short run might be the best thing you can do! 

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#9 - Boosts Your Mood and Confidence 

psychological benefits of running

Some more running benefits for mental health include the exercise’s ability to help boost your mood and confidence! 

You don’t have to run for hours on end every day to feel the effects of running on your mood, though. According to an article from the American Psychological Association, you’ll begin to experience mood-enhancing effects within just 5 minutes of starting moderate exercise! 

Whilst 5 minutes of running isn’t guaranteed to raise your confidence levels immediately, happy people are generally more confident, and vice versa. 

It’s also been found that outdoor exercise, such as running, can result in lowered blood pressure and increased self-esteem. 

Research also uncovered that setting and attaining ambitious running goals has a huge impact on happiness levels, raising your confidence levels in the process. 

As previously discussed, running can also have a hugely positive effect on lessening feelings of anxiety. Combating anxiety can also help you become the most confident version of yourself possible! 

If you’re suffering from low self-esteem or a lack of confidence, go for a run and watch your confidence soar! Or, if you can’t go running at this exact moment, we’ve got a wide range of the Best Natural Mood Boosters you can do wherever you are!

#10 - Decreases Cravings For Unhealthy Foods and Substances 

mental health running

Other mental effects of running include the fact that running regularly can actually help decrease your cravings for unhealthy foods and substances! 

Essentially, there’s a biological link between appetite and exercise. A good example of this is when you’ve been for a run, you’re more likely to opt for a healthier option when you go for food (such as fruits and vegetables), rather than unhealthy foods (such as pizza or chips).

The reason for this could be because after running, the levels of the appetite-stimulating hormones in your bodies is reduced whilst the levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone are increased. 

When your body is resting, this hormonal change is maintained, and so your brain is more likely to opt for foods that it knows will be beneficial for its growth and development, like foods that are high in vitamins and minerals.

Combating your cravings will be an excellent start towards achieving your weight-loss goals, once again highlighting why running is such an excellent exercise not just for your mental health, but for your body’s health too! 

And although running won’t get rid of a sweet tooth, we’ve got you covered on your weight loss journey - OriGym's comprehensive exploration of the Best Healthy Ice Creams is bound to have your flavour!

#11 - Boosts Creativity 

mental benefits of running

You might not think running and mental health would go hand in hand with creativity, but they most definitely do! 

We know that running stimulates BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which encourages the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, but did you know that the hippocampus can also have a positive effect on your creativity? 

It’s been found that there’s actually a direct link between movement and improved creativity, both during the exercise and after! Whether the movement was done indoors or outdoors, the conclusion was that exercise gets the ideas flowing and is a great solution for increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.

In a paper called Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, researchers discovered that walking and running both gave a boost to creativity even that lasted during and after exercise.

Research has shown that the ability to imagine the future and to think creatively also depend on this region of the brain, as does the ability to memorise and learn new things. By expanding and encouraging that particular area of the brain, our creative ideas have more chance of coming to fruition.  

You could even put that creativity to practical use by designing a home workout with a few unorthodox choices -  our list of household items for a home workout will undoubtedly spark some innovate exercise ideas!

The general idea here is that the more exercise you do, the more of an increase in creative ideas and thinking that you’re going to experience! 

#12 - Helps the Brain Heal From Substance Abuse

mental health benefits of running

Running also improves your mental health by helping your brain heal from any damage it may have picked up from substance abuse over the years!

This statement holds true, even when the substance in question is something as potent as methamphetamines. 

Meth decreases the brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin, the chemicals that make up the endorphins that help relieve the body of stress and pain. Meth also burns out the chemicals receptors, so you won’t feel that natural high after a while. 

Running, on the other hand, helps to re-normalise the function of these two neurotransmitters, as well as boost their production, according to findings in the journal Synapse. After 14 months of abstinence from harmful substances, the reward region of the brain returns to nearly normal levels of function!   

As previously mentioned, running and exercising regularly can help combat any cravings you have for unhealthy foods or potentially harmful substances, so if you want to prevent your brain from even having to heal in the first place, perhaps one of the best things you could do is start to go for runs! 

#13 - Encourages Social Interaction 

running mental health

Another of the benefits of running for mental health include the fact that running encourages social interaction, which in turn could help reduce any feelings of depression and anxiety that you were previously suffering from. 

Interacting with other runners, either at the gym, through running clubs, or at races can help alleviate feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety. 

Making new friends or strengthening existing bonds with family and friends who run can be excellent social support for those who are dealing with anxiety and depression. The sense of community that runners feel when they’re working out with each other can have hugely beneficial effects on their mental health. You could even swap tips on your running supplements, or how you get the most from your exercise.

Making plans and getting out of the house to exercise with like-minded people will also have a positive effect on not just your mental health, but on your motivation levels too. 

If you are feeling low, joining a running group or getting to know other runners could be a great way to help you begin to combat any mental health issues you’re currently dealing with! 

#14 - Increases Your Productivity

running for mental health

Mental health and running also go hand in hand with an increase in your productivity, as well as increasing your creativity, as we mentioned earlier! 

We already know that running keeps you healthy, but it can also help increase productivity in all areas of your life too! Running and exercise in general gives you more energy and stops that afternoon fatigue slump, as well as keeping your momentum and improving your mental capacity. In short, one of the reasons to start running for mental health is that it helps clear ‘brain fog’. 

Running is shown to combat fatigue, improve performance, reduce stress, and in turn, lead to fewer workday absences. Running combats chronic stress that is often suffered by workers, and it also helps improve your sleep quality too, thus leading to you being better rested and better prepared to tackle the new day.

Running also increases your energy capacity, meaning you’ll be able to go harder and for longer, be that in terms of running or in turns of getting stuff done at work. 

The mood boost that running provides you with also has a positive effect on your productivity levels too, so you’ll get more done than you would otherwise when you’re feeling low! 

We all boost our productivity in different ways. Some of us prefer silence, others use music - we’ve explored how music affects us on our runs in another of our articles!

#15 - Gives You Goals and Increases Motivation 

advantages of running for mental health

Another link between improved mental health and running is the fact that running on a regular basis gives you an opportunity to set goals for yourself, thus increasing your motivation! 

Many studies have found that setting goals for yourself can be an incredibly important step in the recovery from mental illness. 

Setting goals for yourself can also improve your motivation and help you develop a regular running habit. Feeling disorganised or unprepared can often lead to feelings of stress, so ensuring that you have a consistent running program can help add structure to your life, thus easing your stress in the process. 

Achieving the goals that you set for yourself can not only help you feel more motivated but can also have a hugely positive effect on your confidence and self-esteem too! Smashing a goal you never knew you could achieve will undoubtedly feel amazing, which in turn will make you feel better about yourself too! 

Though it may not sound like much, setting running goals for yourself can have a hugely positive effect on not just your motivation but your mental health in general too! And we’ve got a few suggestions on how you can track those goals with OriGym's guide to the Best Fitness Journals!

So to answer your question, ‘does running improve your mental health?’, yes, it absolutely does! 

How Long Should I Run For?

how does running improve mental health

It’s understandable this might be a question you would have, especially after our extensive section on the mental health benefits of running. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single answer to this question.

Let’s explain why.

We’ve already mentioned the vast array of mental health running benefits, but as you may have read, each of these is different. For instance, one study from the American Psychological Association found that general mood and happiness levels increased after just 5 minutes! 

While this may just be a quick fix, it’s definitely worth being aware of this extremely quick mental health benefit of running. More prolonged mental benefits of running (such as improved memory, as found by researchers at Cambridge University) were found to take up to 5 weeks of regular running among their subjects.

Essentially, what this means is that there are both short and long term mental health benefits of running, but by going for a run on a regular basis, you can continue to compound these benefits!

How Often Should I Run?

running improves mental health

This does depend on what you want to achieve, what your fitness level is, and your personal preferences for running. 

Some people may be comfortable with running more regularly than others, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll achieve any more of the mental health benefits of running than others. 

Those who run in a more social setting (such as a running group) may see different mental benefits of running to those who run solo, for example. But, the one thing all running has in common is that release of endorphins and serotonin, and this running mental health benefit is universal.

However, as a general recommendation to achieve the most mental benefits of running, we’d suggest trying to go running at least 3 times per week. This amount doesn’t only come with the benefits of improved mood and reduced stress, but the scientific evidence also points to an improvement in sleep!

With how much running helps mental health, it’s a clear choice for those who want to see a tangible improvement in their mental health!

Before You Go!

We hope you’ve enjoyed our overview of what we feel are the biggest mental health benefits of running. Some of these are more surprising mental benefits of running, but each day new discoveries are made, and we discover even more reasons why running benefits mental health!

At OriGym, we’re incredibly passionate about fitness and health, and a big part of that is understanding how our exercise affects us mentally, too.

And if you’re of that mindset too, and have a great understanding of how fitness affects our bodies for the better, then one of our REPS and CIMSPA accredited personal training courses could be the right fit for you. 

You can even download our FREE prospectus, and learn more about us, and what we offer!

References

  1. Bernward Winter, Caterina Breitenstein, Frank C. Mooren, Klaus Voelker, Manfred Fobker, Anja Lechtermann, Karsten Krueger, Albert Fromme, Catharina Korsukewitz, Agnes Floel, Stefan Knecht, High impact running improves learning, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Volume 87, Issue 4, 2007, Pages 597-609, ISSN 1074-7427, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2006.11.003.
  2. Colledge Flora, Gerber Markus, Pühse Uwe, Ludyga Sebastian. Anaerobic Exercise Training in the Therapy of Substance Use Disorders: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, Volume 9, 2018, Page 644. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00644
  3. Craft LL, Perna FM. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004;6(3):104-111. doi:10.4088/pcc.v06n0301
  4. David J. Creer, Carola Romberg, Lisa M. Saksida, Henriette van Praag, Timothy J. Bussey. Running enhances spatial pattern separation in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2010, 200911725; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0911725107
  5. Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036577

Written by Chris Allsobrook

Editor

Chris is a former English teacher, turned content editor. He holds a first-class honours degree in English Language and Creative Writing from the University of Central Lancashire, before going on to complete his teacher training, and obtain a PGCE at Liverpool John Moore’s.

Chris is a keen runner and is currently undertaking both his fitness instructing and personal training qualifications here at OriGym. 

Outside of fitness, you’ll often find him gaming, watching the football, cooking, or spending time with his family.

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