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.
Running, Memory and Learning
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 we process during a run, and how much more aware we have to be of our surroundings.
Runners Are More Organised
Interestingly, there’s evidence to suggest that people who sprinted regularly 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.
This is particularly true when it comes to stress and trauma. As a clinical psychologist there are some therapeutic approaches that use movement to process traumatic experiences. It really does alter brain connections!
While intervals are one of many strategies to help us run faster, it also helps us order information.
Running Protects Against Aging
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.
When Running Doesn’t Help Our Mental Health…
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 who were scanned before and after an ultra running event, showed up to an 8% shrinkage in brain size after completing their event. This is considerable when you realise shrinkage with age is about 0.2% per year.
Don’t worry or panic if you’re planning on running an ultra though. Over a number of months, the shrinkage was found to be reversible – phew!
Mental Health and Movement
I’m convinced the very action of moving forward evokes the experience of making progress, regardless of what’s on your mind. Running involves looking and thinking ahead which in itself can be incredibly cathartic.
As thoughts come and go, whatever they are, running naturally allows for mindfulness. There’s been plenty of studies to show that mindfulness can improve our running and mental wellbeing.
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 Social Side of Mental Health
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 connections either. 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.
Having a social side to your running will enhance your motivation. I’ve lost count how many times me and a running friend pushed each other along some gruelling stretches of the south west coast path, like this running route from Towan Beach to St Anthony Head.
Despite the discomfort, we always thanked 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. It could be that taking a leap of faith, and signing up to a virtual running challenge, would offer something to aim for.
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.