On the face of it, running may not seem helpful for those suffering with mental health issues. Pounding the pavement, extreme physical exertion, and in often treacherous weather conditions. However, studies have repeatedly shown the link between exercise and mental wellbeing. There is more to it than feelings of depression becoming masked by feelings of exhaustion on a run.

Brain Activity During a Run

It is common knowledge that exercise produces endorphins. As the run goes on and intensifies, the heart works faster to pump oxygenated blood around the body and brain. Endorphins can help prevent muscles from feeling pain or fatigue, and at the end of a period of intense exercise produce a euphoric and intensely good feeling. This is colloquially known as ‘runner’s high.’ In his book Running and Being, George Sheehan describes runner’s high as “pure happiness, elation, a feeling of unity with one’s self and/or nature, endless peacefulness, inner harmony, boundless energy, and a reduction in pain sensation.” 

Endorphins may not be the only reason for a post-run high. Endocannabinoids are also a factor. Endocannabinoids are a biochemical substance naturally produced by the body, and as the name suggests, it is not dissimilar to cannabis. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine made the link between endocannabinoids and a decrease in feelings of anxiety after exercise. They travel through the bloodstream to the brain and have a calming effect. In addition, the hippocampus, which is the brain’s center of memory and learning, increases in volume as a result of exercise. 

Mental Benefits of Running

The positive effects of running on the brain have been well documented for several decades. There are many other benefits, ranging from common sense to cognitive:

  • Vitamin D – Being outside for an extended period of time helps expose the body to sunlight. Having the sun on the skin helps the body create vitamin D. According to the NHS, creating more vitamin D “helps the body absorb calcium and phosphate from our diet. These minerals are important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles.”
  • Productivity – It may seem difficult to accommodate running into a busy schedule. Running before or during the day can improve productivity throughout the working day. It may seem to be counterintuitive but research has shown that performance indicators were higher post-exercise, which is linked to the change in mood. 
  • Sleep – Depression can affect sleep – from insomnia to sleeping too much. Running in the daytime before bed raises the core temperature of the body temporarily. Once the body’s temperature begins to decrease again, the brain uses this as a natural signifier that it is time to sleep.
  • Accomplishment – During a period of depression, things may seem hopeless and achieving literally anything may seem beyond grasp. The mere act of getting dressed, leaving the house, and going for a run may seem impossible, but even after a short jog, the aforementioned ‘runner’s high’ can leave runners with a feeling of accomplishment, which it is. Plus, it can be used as a springboard to become more active. 
  • Stress – As well as clearing the mind and forcing it to focus on running, exercise releases a hormone called norepinephrine. This chemical helps to moderate the brain’s response to stress and therefore lessens mental tension. Running also helps to change processes in the brain, which can help to reframe problems and situations.
  • Decrease Risk of Illness – A study of 154,000 runners and walkers in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that those who ran over fifteen miles a week reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 40%. People in the study that ran over seven miles a week decreased their chances of death from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by 25%. This is because regular running in adult life helps to prevent degeneration of the hippocampus.

David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience, is an outspoken proponent for the benefits or running to help with symptoms of depression. Linden says, “Exercise has a dramatic anti-depressive effect…it blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.” Blunting symptoms of depression with exercise is a valuable management tool. However, it can only be seen as an alleviation and not a cure, and communication with a healthcare professional is also crucial in assisting those with depression and anxiety. 

Regularly running to improve mental health will also lead to increased physical fitness, as well as helping symptoms of depression. Physical and mental health go hand in hand, and both feed off each other. For the vast majority of those that run, there will be no element of competition. The aim of running may not be to feature at the Olympics or any major events where there is athletics betting, as noble and aspirational as those events are. Mental clarity and wellbeing is a victory of its own accord, and runners can be proud if their efforts help alleviate depression.