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Positive Benefits Of Running For Mental Health


Runner, Dietician, Blogger and Author Charlie Watson take us through the positive benefits of running for your mental health.

There’s nothing quite like that post-run high and it’s one of the main reasons why running is so popular, beyond just the keep-fit benefits.

 

I started running as a way to do something positive in memory of a friend that had lost his life to depression. I never thought about it as something that would benefit my own mental health, but more as a way of channelling my grief, raising money and awareness for mental health and male suicide. 

Finishing that first marathon in 2012 with my best friend at my side was one of the most incredible experiences. I thought I would be a ‘one and done’ when it came to the marathon distance, but 13 x 26.2 miles later and the reason I run has changed. 

It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I addressed my own mental health issues, coming to a head in 2019 as I juggled writing my dissertation and finishing my dietetic degree, handing in the final draft of my cookbook, COOK EAT RUN, and dealing with some online trolling.

 

I hadn’t achieved my sub 3.30 goal at the Edinburgh Marathon and after pushing so hard to run a certain time, I needed to step back and run for pure fun again. To enjoy chatty miles with friends, travel to races to explore new places and earn a medal for my efforts, and most importantly, to remember why I run in the first place. 

 

For so long my ‘why’ has been to remember my friend, Vic. But in the last 5+ years, running has become a solace when I’m feeling overwhelmed, a time to reflect, cry, drift off to a podcast or audiobook. It has become a tool to handle my bouts of anxiety (alongside therapy) by simply removing myself from situations, turning off the computer/TV and focusing on breathing, my surroundings and simply putting one foot in front of the other. 

I always come back from a run in a better headspace than when I set out… (even if I don’t quite hit those interval paces, or the route was a little bit hillier than I’d remembered). 

 

But why exactly do we feel so good after a run, and what mental health benefits are there beyond the obvious feel-good factor? It turns out, there are numerous reported benefits, with some pretty solid science behind them…

 

Positive Benefits of Running For Mental Health

Long-term reduction in symptoms of depression

For so long my ‘why’ has been to remember my friend, Vic. But in the last 5+ years, running has become a solace when I’m feeling overwhelmed, a time to reflect, cry, drift off to a podcast or audiobook. It has become a tool to handle my bouts of anxiety (alongside therapy) by simply removing myself from situations, turning off the computer/TV and focusing on breathing, my surroundings and simply putting one foot in front of the other. 

I always come back from a run in a better headspace than when I set out… (even if I don’t quite hit those interval paces, or the route was a little bit hillier than I’d remembered). 

 

But why exactly do we feel so good after a run, and what mental health benefits are there beyond the obvious feel-good factor? It turns out, there are numerous reported benefits, with some pretty solid science behind them…

 

Reduces Anxiety

Bella Mackie has written a whole book about how running helped her to overcome her life-long anxiety and, by her own admission, saved her life. It’s not an uncommon experience. There are thought to be several reasons for this. Firstly, running is simply a good distraction from all the other things you might be feeling. As Bella describes her first run here, “Did I feel better? No… but I hadn’t cried for at least 15 minutes and that was good enough for me.”

Beyond helping alleviate anxiety while it’s happening, running can also help reduce the chances of those feelings cropping up at all. This study found that, in people with existing anxiety disorders, those who did a lot of physical activity were better protected against developing new anxiety symptoms.

 

Improves Sleep

It’s a vicious cycle: insomnia and lack of sleep is well-known to worsen mental health (even at the most basic level, nobody is at their best when they’re tired!), but equally can be a symptom of depression. The good news is that regular exercise has been linked to improved sleep (both quantity and quality) in numerous studies. The even better news is that you don’t need to go super hard in every session to see the benefits either - moderate exercise has been shown to improve sleep more than vigorous workouts, which can sometimes disrupt it.

 

Confidence Booster

Low self-esteem is another symptom of poor mental health and running can be a great way to build confidence and overcome this. A clear link has been proven between physical activity and self-esteem and body image. It’s not surprising - running shows us that we can do hard things and achieve goals we weren’t sure were possible. 

This confidence then translates to other parts of your life too. Women’s running collective WMN RUN, who recently hosted an event on resilience for International Women’s Day, talk about how running can encourage people to “shoot for things they may never have deemed themselves capable of… in running and life as a whole”.

Vitamin D Top-up

Over the summer months (April to September), our bodies can make enough vitamin D from being outside and exposed to midday sun for around 10-30 minutes. A lunch time run is a great way to get this exposure, and makes for a powerful cocktail along with those exercise endorphins. Vitamin D is super important for good mental health as low levels are associated with conditions like depression, seasonal affective disorder and schizophrenia. 

Sense Of Community

While facing other people might be the last thing you want to do when you’re having a bad day, psychologist Susan Pinker has described face-to-face contact with other people as being ‘like a vaccine’. It releases oxytocin (the so-called ‘love drug’) and lowers cortisol levels, reducing stress. By running with friends or a running group, you can get this social interaction in a really manageable way. Arranging to meet someone for a half an hour run can feel like less pressure than committing to a whole evening in the pub (when they’re open!) with them.

Even if you can’t meet a friend in-person for a run, there’s a fantastic running community online that you can join in with, and this in itself can be enough to reduce loneliness. 

What About The Negatives?

While the main thing to take away is that running can have a huge positive impact on mental health (and there are literally hundreds of studies supporting this claim), it’s important to be aware of potential negatives too.

For some people, running can actually become a source of stress in itself, when they become fixated on hitting certain targets or comparing themselves to the achievements of others. If you start to feel like this, it’s worth taking a step back. Things like running tech free without any tracking devices can help, or meeting friends for a social run-walk. With lots of races being a bit uncertain at the moment, it’s a perfect time to stop worrying about your pace and just enjoy getting outside for some headspace. 


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