Running is a fantastic activity for the body. It helps you shed pounds, stay lean, develop excellent cardiovascular fitness, and build muscles you didn’t know you had before you started!
If you’re a serious runner, you’re also probably paying attention to your nutrition, so it’s an excellent starting point for improving health in general.
But did you know that running is also great for mental health? It’s equally as good for the brain as it is for the body.
Here’s how running can improve mental health and why you should be paying attention to that side of it too!
How Running Can Improve Mental Health
If you run regularly and for long distances or periods of time, you know that euphoric feeling that comes with runner’s high!
If you run shorter distances, you may never have felt the sudden elation that kicks in just when you think you’ve got nothing left in the tank.
But chances are, running makes you feel good. If it didn’t, most of us wouldn’t do it! While you get a nice physical pump from a good run, you also get a bunch of mental health benefits you may not even know about.
It Gets Endorphins Pumping
Endorphins are what’s behind runner’s high. They’re hormones that the body produces when you exercise, and their biggest function is reducing your perception of pain.
They don’t take your pain away – rather, they have an analgesic effect, similar to a painkiller. Endorphins can also have a sedative effect, which relaxes everything and makes your muscles and mind both feel better.
They’ve been compared to opioids in their pain-relieving and euphoria-providing properties! The great news is that they’re not addictive, but you do have to do the physical work to get them to come out.
This reduction of pain and increase in relaxation helps to ease anxiety and improve depression. Even if your anxiety and depression aren’t caused by physical pain, the effect is the same, the elation that endorphins provide can make a huge difference to your mental health on a daily basis.
It’s important to note that endorphins aren’t only released when you get that runner’s high feeling. You also won’t automatically get a runner’s high when endorphins are released, so don’t think that you didn’t get any endorphins moving if you don’t feel ridiculously euphoric!
Their effect can be subtle, but consistent exercise will ensure that your brain is flooded with these feel-good chemicals on a regular basis.
It Releases Endocannabinoids
Cannabis may be frowned upon by many, but did you know the body produces chemicals that are extremely similar to those found in cannabis?
When you run, endocannabinoids are released into the bloodstream. Similar to cannabis, they provide a feeling of stress relief and chill. Brings a new meaning to the phrase “runner’s high”!
Endocannabinoids (which basically means inner cannabinoids) serve a large variety of purposes within the body. They can help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, stimulate appetite, and regulate your body temperature.
The endocannabinoid system in the body is basically a regulator. Considering many symptoms of anxiety, depression, and mental illness stem from a chemical imbalance in the brain, stimulating those endocannabinoids can help to keep your brain chemicals well-balanced, reducing negative mental health symptoms.
It Improves Circulation
This might seem like a physical benefit rather than a mental one, but improved circulation means that your brain and muscles are constantly bathed in oxygen-rich and nutrient-rich blood.
This means your cells are in optimal condition. Every time your blood pumps around the body, it’s removing waste (carbon dioxide) and bringing in good stuff (oxygen).
Not only does this help you feel physically better, but it makes sure the brain is in optimal condition too. Keeping your brain sharp in this way can help to prevent cognitive decline which may lead to conditions such as Alzheimers.
Just like a muscle will atrophy if there’s not enough blood coming to it, so will the brain! Running on a regular basis improves brain health, reducing the chances of mental health struggles.
It Clears Your Mind
Have you ever noticed how hypnotizing running can be? Feet pounding on the sidewalk, body moving rhythmically… It’s excellent therapy.
It’s almost impossible to have a good run and continue to feel angry, stressed, or uptight. It may not remove the root of the problem, but it’s a great way to clear the mind and have a stress-free few hours.
It Helps You Sleep Better
Sleep is extremely important for both physical and mental health. This is when the brain consolidates memories and heals the body.
Have you ever noticed that you sleep more soundly after you’ve had a hard run? Better sleep equals better concentration, an improved mood, better food choices, and increased willpower (among other things!).
On the other hand, bad sleep leads to grumpiness, an inability to focus on the task at hand, mood swings, and difficulty making good choices (like what to eat for lunch, or how to relieve stress).
You may not feel the effects of a lack of sleep immediately. But repeated nights of poor sleep can have long-lasting consequences that feed poor mental health.
Making sure to get a solid 7 to 8 hours every night. If your sleep is disrupted, your body may not be able to heal itself properly or rejuvenate properly for the day ahead.
Just running won’t fix bad sleep hygiene, but it helps! Endorphins and endocannabinoids have a mild sedative effect, which can bump up the quality of your sleep.
Other things you can do include adjusting the temperature in your sleeping space, removing distractions, darkening the area, and sound-proofing if you must.
A good night’s sleep is necessary for good mental health!
It Gets You Out in Nature
Vitamin D is essential for sound mental health. You can take a vitamin D supplement, but nothing works as well as spending some time in the sun.
Running gets you into the fresh air and the natural light. Natural light is essential for your circadian rhythms to do their thing properly, which is an important part of getting enough quality sleep.
Studies show that just 10 to 20 minutes a day in a natural setting can have a large positive impact on mental health! What better way to spend those 10 to 20 minutes than going for a run through a beautiful, natural space?
It Can Help You Get Off Meds
Whether you’re on meds for mental health or physical conditions, they’re meant to be used as supplementary therapy, not to fix the problem entirely.
When it comes to mental health, many medications focus on bringing the hormones and brain chemicals back into balance. In the body, meds can do anything from mask symptoms to balance things out. That’s helpful, but what else do they do?
Medication often has negative side effects. Drowsiness, nausea, fuzzy head, and a variety of others can be caused by the very medication you’re on.
As we’ve already mentioned, running helps the body to release happy hormones and balance out the chemicals in the brain and body. Endocannabinoids work constantly to bring our body and brain into homeostasis – balance.
Incorporating exercise into your routine on a daily basis can serve the same purpose as those meds.
We’re certainly not saying you shouldn’t consider medication for both mental health and physical health struggles. But running costs nothing, can be done anywhere, and does the same stuff in the body.
If you’re already on meds, don’t stop taking them when you start running! It will take time for the body and brain to learn that they can rely on their own endorphins.
Use both your medication and your exercise and consult your doctor about lessening your meds if you feel that you’re at that point.
How to Motivate Yourself to Run
We all go through those moments when we just don’t want to do the thing.
Whether you’re struggling to find inspiration or you’re wondering how to start, here are some tips to motivate yourself to run.
There’s no need to leap into a full-on daily running program. Start by going for a run two to three times a week. Once you’re used to this, you can increase it slowly.
Going full steam ahead and running every day when you’ve never run before can tire you out! When you hit that wall, it may be harder to come back and start fresh again.
Also, don’t aim for a 5k on your first run. Start small here too – around the block, then around the block twice, then up to the park and back, and so on.
The more you run, the better you get. The better you get, the further you can go!
Run With a Friend
Running alone can be hard. If there’s nobody doing this with you, nobody but you will know if you stay in bed instead of going for a run!
We highly recommend asking a friend, partner, or family member to join you on your daily runs. If you don’t have someone who can run with you every day, you can always ask three or four people to run with you once a week.
This is more about accountability and support than anything else. As long as you have people to be accountable to, you’ll find it easier to run.
While physical health is something we see and feel every day, when we eat, shower, get dressed, and go out in public, mental health is a more silent but equally important aspect of life.
We know running is great for fitness and physical health. Now you know how running can improve mental health too.
Whether or not you struggle with mental health, it’s important to be feeding your body, mind, and soul. Running is the perfect food.