With its health benefits ranging from improved sleep, better endurance, strength, and stamina to lowered cholesterol level and improved cardiovascular fitness, isn’t it quite obvious that running is one of the best ways to stay fit and in shape?
But does running make your mental health run too, you wonder? Well, most regular runners vouch for the fact that running has benefited them psychologically and emotionally. Scientists agree.
Science Says Running Improves Your Mental Health
When researchers at Duke University conducted a broad, population-based study to find whether there is any link between depression and physical activity, they found that active people are less depressed than the rest.1
Another study found that just 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill can lift the mood of patients suffering from major depressive disorders.2
Yet another claims that cardiorespiratory exercises, which focus on the heart and the lungs, can help people with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and/or a major depressive disorder, and reduce mortality.3
1. Lowers Stress
Endorphins, popularly referred to as the happiness hormones, are the body’s own way of reducing stress and pain. They are secreted in maximum quantity when your body is subjected to intense exercise, such as running, which increases blood circulation to the brain, prodding the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis into releasing the endorphins. As a result, your body deals with stress better.4
Not just endorphins, running also helps your body synthesize more of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, the deficiency of which causes depression.5 In this, running functions like antidepressants. Usually, you tend to get a mood-enhancement effect within five minutes of moderate exercising.
2. Fights Depression And Anxiety
Running is known to release feel-good hormones that elevate mood and lower stress and anxiety levels. It has also been found to keep depression at bay. A study, in 2004, compared running and psychotherapy, in which subjects suffering from panic disorder were asked to run for 20 minutes 3 times a week for 10 weeks.6 They showed a significant reduction in depression, the positive benefits of which were still present at a 4-month follow-up.
In another study, women who met the research diagnostic criteria for major or minor depression were assigned an 8-week running (aerobic) program. Results indicated that the running program significantly reduced depression.7
3. Improves Focus
If you’ve got a treadmill at your workplace, run during your breaks. A University of Bristol study found that running during work hours had a positive effect on employee mood, productivity, and workplace performance.8
As regular running increases the secretion of the mood-enhancing hormones like norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine,9 together called the catecholamines, your attention and focus improve. Thanks to this, running is considered one of the most effective methods to reduce attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.10
4. Aids Learning
Running has positive effects on “brain structure and function.” It helps in the generation of new nerve cells or neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that aids the process of learning.11
5. Boosts Memory
Chronic stress stops the birth of neurons, or neurogenesis, in the brain and shrink the hippocampus, the region in the brain that is responsible for learning and memory. This leads to cognitive deficits, where the patient has difficulty processing information and acting accordingly.12
And considering the fact that running lowers stress, it’s no surprise that it also increases neurogenesis in the hippocampus.13 Here are a few memory-related conditions that running improves
- Schizophrenia: Schizophrenic patients suffer from cognitive deficits which have limited treatment options. Researchers tested the effects of running on social cognition, working memory, attention, the speed of processing information, visual and verbal learning, and reasoning. They found that it significantly improved the first three aspects. Additionally, the more number of days the participants exercised, the better the benefits. They attributed this to an increase in the number of brain cells.14
- Age-related cognitive decline: If you start running now, you’ll lower your risk for age-related memory loss. According to a study, vocabulary learning was found to be 20 percent faster after intense physical exercise.15
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s: With its ability to generate new nerve cells, running helps prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia—Alzheimer’s disease makes up about 60–80 percent cases of dementia—where the neurons lose their ability to function properly and eventually die.
Consistent exercise can actually bring about structural changes to your hippocampus, slow down neurodegeneration, and improve learning and memory retention. It can especially help the elderly population and patients of type-2 diabetes, who have higher risks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.16 17
6. Boosts Your Self-Esteem
Have you noticed how difficult it is for you to focus on any task and interact with others when you are depressed or in the throes of anxiety? Soon, this starts affecting your efficiency, and you are left with low self-esteem.
Studies have claimed that being involved in vigorous physical activities like running help with all of these.18 When you run, you get fit, and that improves your self-esteem. It then serves as the basis for a more successful personal life as you start realizing that you are capable of achieving more than you give yourself credit for. Needless to say, this confidence counters your depressive symptoms.19
7. Promotes Creativity
You may be wondering how running a few miles and sweating it out can increase creativity, a trait that seems apparently unrelated to physical activities. Whoever heard of poets being great runners, right? But a study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that those who engaged in moderate aerobic exercises like running saw an increase in their creative potential.20
Among the 60 college students, who were given a Torrance Test Of Creative Thinking, those who had exercised before the test were found to be able to sustain this increased potential for up to two hours after the workout regime. They displayed better emotional expression, expressed their ideas coherently and fluently, and showed a higher sense of humor and originality in their works.
The researchers further suggested that creative performances could be improved at the workplace if activities were designed using these results.
Started Running Yet?
Even moderate amounts of exercise can make a huge difference to your health and well being. It doesn’t matter what your age or fitness level is, use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better. Start slow. But start now.
|↑1||Blumenthal, James A., Patrick J. Smith, and Benson M. Hoffman. “Is exercise a viable treatment for depression?.” ACSM’s health & fitness journal 16, no. 4 (2012): 14.|
|↑2||Sharma, Ashish, Vishal Madaan, and Frederick D. Petty. “Exercise for mental health.” Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry8, no. 2 (2006): 106.|
|↑3||Vancampfort, Davy, Simon Rosenbaum, Felipe Schuch, Philip B. Ward, Justin Richards, James Mugisha, Michel Probst, and Brendon Stubbs. “Cardiorespiratory fitness in severe mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Sports Medicine (2016): 1-10.|
|↑4||DeBoer, Lindsey B., Mark B. Powers, Angela C. Utschig, Michael W. Otto, and Jasper AJ Smits. “Exploring exercise as an avenue for the treatment of anxiety disorders.” Expert review of neurotherapeutics 12, no. 8 (2012): 1011-1022.|
|↑5||Rao, TS Sathyanarayana, M. R. Asha, B. N. Ramesh, and KS Jagannatha Rao. “Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses.” Indian journal of psychiatry 50, no. 2 (2008): 77.|
|↑6||Hovland, Anders, Inger Hilde Nordhus, Trond Sjøbø, Bente A. Gjestad, Birthe Birknes, Egil W. Martinsen, Torbjørn Torsheim, and Ståle Pallesen. “Comparing physical exercise in groups to group cognitive behaviour therapy for the treatment of panic disorder in a randomized controlled trial.” Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy 41, no. 04 (2013): 408-432.|
|↑7||Byrne, A., and D. G. Byrne. “The effect of exercise on depression, anxiety and other mood states: a review.” Journal of psychosomatic research 37, no. 6 (1993): 565-574.|
|↑8||Coulson, J. C., J. McKenna, and M. Field. “Exercising at work and self-reported work performance.” International Journal of Workplace Health Management 1, no. 3 (2008): 176-197.|
|↑9||Hattori, Satoshi, Makoto Naoi, and Hitoo Nishino. “Striatal dopamine turnover during treadmill running in the rat: relation to the speed of running.” Brain research bulletin 35, no. 1 (1994): 41-49.|
|↑10||Gomes, Elisa Couto, Albená Nunes Silva, and Marta Rubino de Oliveira. “Oxidants, antioxidants, and the beneficial roles of exercise-induced production of reactive species.” Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity2012 (2012).|
|↑11||Nokia, Miriam S., Sanna Lensu, Juha P. Ahtiainen, Petra P. Johansson, Lauren G. Koch, Steven L. Britton, and Heikki Kainulainen. “Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained.” The Journal of physiology 594, no. 7 (2016): 1855-1873.|
|↑12||Sapolsky, Robert M. “Depression, antidepressants, and the shrinking hippocampus.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 22 (2001): 12320-12322.|
|↑13||Brené, Stefan, Astrid Bjørnebekk, Elin Åberg, Aleksander A. Mathé, Lars Olson, and Martin Werme. “Running is rewarding and antidepressive.”Physiology & behavior 92, no. 1 (2007): 136-140.|
|↑14||Firth, Joseph, Brendon Stubbs, Simon Rosenbaum, Davy Vancampfort, Berend Malchow, Felipe Schuch, Rebecca Elliott, Keith H. Nuechterlein, and Alison R. Yung. “Aerobic Exercise Improves Cognitive Functioning in People With Schizophrenia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.”Schizophrenia Bulletin (2016): sbw115.|
|↑15||Winter, Bernward, Caterina Breitenstein, Frank C. Mooren, Klaus Voelker, Manfred Fobker, Anja Lechtermann, Karsten Krueger et al. “High impact running improves learning.” Neurobiology of learning and memory 87, no. 4 (2007): 597-609.|
|↑16||Greenwood, Benjamin N., Paul V. Strong, Teresa E. Foley, and Monika Fleshner. “A behavioral analysis of the impact of voluntary physical activity on hippocampus‐dependent contextual conditioning.” Hippocampus 19, no. 10 (2009): 988-1001.|
|↑17||Bertram, Sebastian, Klara Brixius, and Christian Brinkmann. “Exercise for the diabetic brain: how physical training may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in T2DM patients.” Endocrine (2016): 1-14.|
|↑18||Taylor, C. Barr, James F. Sallis, and Richard Needle. “The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health.” Public health reports 100, no. 2 (1985): 195.|
|↑19||Peluso, Marco Aurélio Monteiro, and Laura Helena Silveira Guerra de Andrade. “Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood.” Clinics 60, no. 1 (2005): 61-70.|
|↑20||Colzato, Lorenza S., Ayca Szapora Ozturk, Justine Nienke Pannekoek, and Bernhard Hommel. “The impact of physical exercise on convergent and divergent thinking.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013): 824.|