Running benefits an athlete’s health. This has been proven time and again. Runners see improvement in their cardiac health, their weight management, the function of the nervous system, among other benefits. The sport’s impact on mental health is less well-known. This is largely due to the taboo nature of mental health discussions. Most people have only recently become comfortable with openly discussing mental health issues. As the conversations become more common, so does the research. And although research into the link between running and mental health is still in its infancy, it is yielding surprising and promising results.
An Important Note
Mental health is deeply personal. The information in this article is intended as an overview. It is no substitute for a doctor or therapist. Running is also not a replacement for mental health medications. Some people use them in tandem. Some people find that they need less of their medication while running. But the specific balance of medication to exercise depends on each individual person and is best found with the help of professionals.
The link between running and mental health is still largely untested. Many of the benefits only have a few studies to support them while others are supported only by runner-reported experiences. Even benefits supported by anecdotal evidence, however, are common among runners who also deal with mental health issues.
Reduction in the Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety often go together. Many – although not all – of their symptoms overlap. Depression makes it hard for people to find motivation, reduces a person’s ability to feel pleasure, and can sap energy levels. Anxiety can do all of these things while also causing persistent worried thoughts and leaving the sufferer with a sense of impending doom.
The studies are still in their early stages, but some research shows that running can reduce the impact of these symptoms. Runners report that their minds quiet down while running. Their thoughts “come and go” instead of replaying on a loop. Many runners also report feeling more objective during and after a run. They find problems easier to approach and solutions easier to decide on. And although runners with depression may struggle to get out the door, many who get on their feet report elevated energy levels for several hours after their runs.
Improved Memory and Focus
Some researchers report “improved learning abilities” in mental health patients who take up running. When they explain this, it often breaks down into two specific improvements: better memory and clearer focus. Some runners believe these benefits come from chemicals their bodies release during runs. And, in part, they are right. But running also affects the physical structure of the brain. These changes have a larger impact than the release of chemicals. And it is these changes – explained in depth further along in this article – that lead to better memory and clearer focus. Initially, these benefits occur during and right after runs. But once running becomes a habit, runners see these changes taking effect around the clock.
Slowed Cognitive Decline
This particular benefit is more pertinent for older runners and their caregivers. That makes it no less important when discussing the link between mental health and exercise. Running encourages the creation of new neurons in the brain. This slows the mental decline that some people see as they age. Researchers are even going so far as to look at how running affects conditions like Alzheimer’s, though the research has not yielded results yet.
Improved sleep might seem like too obvious a benefit. Someone is obviously going to sleep more if they put out energy to run. But the benefit goes deeper than that. Conditions like depression and anxiety often cause sleep problems. Whether the sufferer cannot sleep, sleeps too much, or sleeps poorly they have issues with sleep. Runners with these conditions often report better sleep once running becomes a habit. They sleep better, wake up less often in the middle of the night, and find it easier to fall asleep. These benefits, in addition to their improved physical fitness, often leads to reported energy level increases as well.
Studies on the link between exercise and mental health may be in the early stages, but there are a few things researchers know for sure. They know that running stimulates the frontal cortex, encourages neurogenesis, and affects a person’s cognitive process.
The Frontal Cortex
The human brain consists of several different regions. The frontal cortex controls decision-making, planning, and a great deal of critical thought. Researchers put experienced runners through their paces while monitoring their front cortexes. They found that the runners’ frontal cortexes lit up while they ran. Researchers also found that the frontal cortexes of runners were slightly different from non-runners, though they are still looking into the specific changes.
What Does This Mean?
Runners with depression and anxiety often report calmer, more objective thought processes when they run. The most likely reason for this is that running stimulates their front cortexes. Since this part of the brain controls decision making and planning, it is the part of the brain that makes objective decisions.
Neurogenesis means “the creation of new neurons”. Neurons carry information in the brain. They make all thought, memory, focus possible. Researchers only recently discovered this benefit by looking at the brains of rats that regularly ran compared to rats who did not. The running rats had slightly larger hippocampus regions with younger neurons. Rat brains and human brains are surprisingly similar, so researchers are confident this applies to humans as well.
What Does This Mean?
The hippocampus is responsible for memory, learning, and motivation. It is the part of the brain that reacts when we reward ourselves. This means that it contributes to a person’s sense of pleasure. People suffering from depression and anxiety have smaller hippocampus regions than people who do not. Running increases the size of a person’s hippocampus and creates new neurons in that part of the brain. This is why runners report improved motivation, focus, and memory when running becomes a habit. The structure of their brains changes in response to running and these changes improve their ability to feel pleasure and motivation.
Altered Cognition Processes
Researchers refer to a person’s thoughts and inner voice as their “cognition process”. Mental health concerns often lead to defeated or negative cognition processes. Many mental health conditions cause people to feel hopeless and this is reflected in the way they think. Running seems to counter these issues in many people. The current hypothesis is that finishing a run is the same thing as achieving a goal. Whether the run is a jog around the block or a marathon, the runner accomplished something.
The act of accomplishing something – of reaching a goal – is often enough to counter some negative self-thoughts. This achievement isn’t going to cure depression, but it may relieve some of the pressure for a time. Focusing on a smaller goal can also help people with anxiety. They can focus on a small, tangible goal. This keeps their mind from fixating on big-picture worries.
For more on the connection between running and the physical and chemical composition of the brain, check out the video below.
The Bottom Line
Aerobic exercise – especially running – has important benefits for people with mental health concerns. Many countries recommend exercise as a first-run treatment for depression and anxiety. Exercise is, of course, no substitute for the help of a doctor or therapist. But it is an excellent addition to someone’s mental health toolkit.
It takes time to see many of the benefits listed above. People who are already physically fit will see their benefits a little faster, though researchers aren’t sure why. But that should not discourage people from pursuing the mental health benefits running offers.