Physical fitness has long been linked to positive mental health. Until recently, however, this link was largely based on ‘common knowledge’. Common knowledge is wrong more often than its name would imply which is why many scientists have tested the exercise/mental health link. These studies usually focus on running and their results are impressive. Running demonstrably improves an athlete’s mental health. The change is gradual and requires the runner to hit a certain “sweet spot” between too much and too little exercise. But the evidence is clear.
Athletes with depression receive a unique “one-two punch” boost when they run. They receive the mood boosts that come with general exercise as well as exposure to sunlight and fresh air. They then benefit from the way running affects a person’s brain. Running affects portions of the brain that are negatively affected by depression. These effects make running an effective tool for treating depression.
How Does Running Help Depression?
Running reduces depression symptoms in two distinct ways. The first way is through general benefits such as exposure to sunlight, introduction to new social groups, and by providing an outlet for restless energy. Many of these benefits can be gained through other forms of exercise. Running goes a little further, however, and directly affects the runner’s brain. Studies show that running enlarges an athlete’s hippocampus and stimulates their frontal cortex. Both regions control key behaviors associated with depression.
It is important to note that running is not a cure for depression. If someone is seeing a therapist or taking antidepressants, running is not a replacement. All of these tools can be used together. Some people find that running allows them to stop taking medication or to reduce their dosage, but this should only be done under the supervision of a doctor.
Connection, Atmosphere, and Release
A “cage”. This is the term many people use when describing their depression. Depression makes it hard to reach out for social connection, get on your feet, or even to leave the house. Most usable energy is replaced by a nervous, jittery energy that only makes things harder. Running offers relief from all of these symptoms.
Non-runners often view the sport as lonely or isolated. Runners know the truth. Whether a runner has a dedicated workout buddy, an online support group, or a local circle they meet up with, running is a social sport. And runners love to share their knowledge, which makes it easy for new runners to make connections. Those who suffer from depression may find their usual friend groups exhausting. A group with an obvious goal and core focus offers a low-energy way to connect with other people.
Studies have shown that once a small milestone is reached – in this case, connecting with other people – the brain finds new milestones a little less scary. The experience creates a positive loop. This loop, in turn, can gradually change how a person thinks. In time, this can help reduce the long-term effects of depression.
Scientists are starting to really look at the link between nature and mental health. As more and more people spend their time moving from one building to another, the case for stopping to smell the roses is getting stronger. This is especially true for those with depression. Depression robs people of their motivation. It can also make the world overwhelming. This one-two punch usually causes sufferers to close themselves off.
When these people run outside, however, their atmosphere changes. They’re exposed to sunlight, fresh air, and the general effect nature has on the human brain. Multiple studies prove that exposure to nature can boost a person’s mood temporarily. Combined with running’s other benefits, this mood boost can help break the mental cycles of depression.
Depression robs people of their motivation, but it leaves something else in its wake. Many people who suffer from depression experience nervous energy. Their bodies feel jittery and their pulses race for no reason. They can’t keep their minds quiet but they have nothing specific to use this energy on. Running provides a great outlet for nervous energy.
Runners with depression often report that running allows them to focus on one specific goal and quiet their thoughts. They often work through recurring problems while on their run as well, which can alleviate that nervous energy over the long term. Runs can also happen almost anywhere. So no matter where a person is when the nervous energy hits, they have a healthy go-to release.
Changes to the Brain
Runners are known for having a certain kind of physique. Running’s effects run much deeper, however. Recent studies show that running stimulates certain parts of the brain while creating new connections in other parts. The affected areas of the brain happen to be those hit hardest by depression. These are, specifically, the frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Depression causes problems for both of these areas. Running helps counter that damage and, in some cases, may even help repair it.
The Frontal Cortex
Decision-making and reasoning happen in the frontal cortex. When someone suffers from depression, they usually have reduced activity in their frontal cortex. This is the most likely reason for the uncertainty and constant worry that comes with depression.
Recent studies prove that running stimulates the frontal cortex as much as playing an instrument does. This stimulation allows runners to break out of circular thoughts. These thoughts often focus on problems that a person cannot solve. Many runners report finding new solutions while on a run. Scientists believe this happens because of the way running stimulates the frontal cortex. It also helps that their thought patterns are interrupted by the mechanics of a run. This leads to new thought processes and, in time, reduced stress.
The two most common symptoms of depression are a lack of motivation and the inability to concentrate. Both of these behaviors are controlled by the hippocampus. When scientists performed brain scans on people with depression, they found that most people with depression also have shrunken hippocampus’. This is the most likely reason for depression’s effect on motivation and concentration.
Running, on the other hand, creates new neurons in the hippocampus. Some studies have even shown that running can help enlarge a shrunken hippocampus in as little as six months. This is part of the reason that increased exercise is the first line of depression treatment in many countries.
Running has a few more benefits for people with depression. These benefits are a little more wide-ranging than those listed above, however. This makes them hard to separate into specific categories.
Changes in Thought Patterns
When a person changes their thought patterns it is called “shifting the cognitive process”. This means that they change the way their brain functions. When a person changes the way their brain functions, they’re changing the way the brain responds to the world. Running is a great way to make these changes, though it takes time to see the impacts of a cognitive shift.
Running provides many small, convenient goals. Whether the runner wants to go faster, farther, or come in first, their goal is specific. When the runner reaches this goal, it teaches the brain that goals are attainable. People with depression often feel hopeless and their brain applies this feeling to everything. Small achievements combat this outlook. Over time they can even teach the brain to expect small successes instead of routine failure.
Endorphins and Hormones
Everyone has heard of the “Runner’s High“. Most people credit an endorphin rush for the feeling. But running does more than release general endorphins. Running also releases serotonin and norepinephrine. People with depression lack both of these chemicals. Their brains don’t produce enough. Running increases their brains’ production rates. And while these chemicals might not help with a “Runner’s High”, they can help fight depression.
Are There Downsides?
Running has a lot of benefits. Moderation is absolutely key, however. Runners who push themselves six or seven days a week may start to see negative mental health effects. This is especially true if they run for an hour or more. Running that much means that the body cannot recover. The body becomes overloaded by stress and this affects the runner’s mental health.
The important thing is to listen to the body’s signals. Gradually build up a running program that the body can keep up with. Stop running if something hurts or if exhaustion becomes more common. So long as a runner practices moderation, running is a great weapon against depression. It can be combined with therapy and medication to address most if not all of a person’s symptoms. Every little bit helps when it comes to depression. And running absolutely without a doubt helps.
- Runners World, For Depression and Anxiety
- CNN, Running for Mental Illness
- BBC, Depression Anxiety & OCD
- Esquire, 4 Ways Running Can Help Your Mental Health
- Self, Running is my antidepressant