Does Running Help Anxiety?
Long-time runners are often happy to share their latest grueling tales from the road – lacing up their shoes in all kinds of weather, challenging themselves to the limit, and overcoming injuries.
It can be hard for non-runners to understand what keeps people coming back for more. But many people say the biggest benefits of running aren’t just how it helps them increase their physical strength or lose weight– it’s how it helps improve their mental health.
Texas mom Nicki Turnbow, for example, says regular running helps her manage her anxiety symptoms.
“Running has, first and foremost, given me an outlet when I need to relax and just clear my mind. I laugh when people say, ‘I only run when I’m running away from something.’ Maybe that’s true though,” she says to Runner’s World. “I was running from anxiety that was holding me back in my life. Call it super corny, but I’d flip it today to say I’m now running towards my dreams.”
How can running help anxiety? Here are nine mental benefits hitting the pavement may deliver.
1. A calmer state of mind
Sometimes, the act of going for a run feels like a hard slog. Yet, many runners describe feeling great after their run. While the fabled “runner’s high” is often credited for this feeling, it turns out that running’s short-term endorphin boost might not be why some experience a calmer state of mind or better mental health, according to an article on the Johns Hopkins Medicine website.
“That relaxed post-run feeling may instead be due to endocannabinoids — biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body. Exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream,” according to David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where these mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm,” according to the article.
2. Stress management
In addition to mental benefits like feeling calm and achieving mental clarity, running may help improve your ability to manage stress. According to a Runner’s World article:
“Indeed, there’s growing consensus that, as a review of research published in Clinical Psychology Review put it, ‘exercise training recruits a process which confers enduring resilience to stress.’ This phenomenon is thought to be related to structural brain changes, such as the growth of and better connection between neurons, caused by running and other forms of aerobic exercise. So, as a runner, you’re better equipped to survive high-stress times.”
Feeling stress is normal, but if it is overtaking your emotions, it may help to hit the pavement to – literally – work off the tension. Additionally, running can be a better outlet for your stressful situations than other coping mechanisms – like eating junk food, drinking excessively or indulging in unhealthy habits.
“I tend to be a reactive person, and with running I have realized that if I am mad or upset, it helps me pause and think about the situation and react reasonably and not completely out of emotion,” Kathy Kelly Maxwell of Montana tells Runner’s World. “I am happy that I have this as a release, as well as a good way to stay healthy, mentally and physically. I don’t have a manual to tell you that it will be for you, but I will say that it helps my overall attitude and how I approach things.”
3. Building up immunity
Many runners will tell you that they prefer running outside to an indoor treadmill. One of the reasons – in addition to a change of scenery and natural hills and valleys – is that runners can benefit from sun exposure.
“Direct contact with the sun helps the body produce higher levels of serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer that promotes feelings of well-being,” according to an article in the Houston Chronicle. “Sunlight also helps your body produce more vitamin D, a micronutrient involved in almost every cellular process. Vitamin D deficiency is usually more common in winter months, so an outdoor exercise session can help bump up your levels. One of the many bodily systems that needs enough vitamin D is the immune system.”
Likewise, exercising outdoors allows you to breathe more fresh air. The Houston Chronicle article points to “biogenic compounds emitted by many plant species” as another potential benefit for exercising outdoors. “Some scientists argue that breathing in these compounds can stimulate better immunity. Being among trees and in nature may also help alleviate stress and anxiety, which in turn, further enhances optimal immune function.”
4. Boosting brain power
While some of your brain’s response to running is short-term, some brain performance benefits may last longer.
“The mental benefits don’t stop when you finish your run – regular cardiovascular exercise can spark growth of new blood vessels to nourish the brain. Exercise may also produce new brain cells in certain locations through a process called neurogenesis, which may lead to an overall improvement in brain performance and prevent cognitive decline,” according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website.
“Exercise has a dramatic antidepressive effect,” Dr. Linden says. “It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.”
According to the website:
“What’s more, the hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with memory and learning – has been found to increase in volume in the brains of regular exercisers. Other mental benefits include:
- Improved working memory and focus
- Better task-switching ability
- Elevated mood”
5. Slowing cognitive decline
The benefits of running or taking part in another intense exercise program may even extend to keeping your brain in shape as you age.
According to research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, exercise may help support important brain material that is essential in the cognitive process.
“Older adults with poor fitness levels have more deterioration of white matter in their brains … compared with their fitter peers,” according to a Time story about the study. “White matter deterioration was also linked with a decline in decision-making brain function among adults with early signs of memory loss, suggesting that regular exercise may slow cognitive decline and perhaps even dementia.”
“In other words, the healthier the white-matter fibers, the better people’s scores were on tests for critical thinking and planning skills,” according to the article.
6. Enhanced productivity
Writer Geoff Colvin discovered during the pandemic that running helped him stay productive at work. In a Fortune article, he writes:
“I’m not an elite runner. I’ve never run a marathon. My routine – subject to disruption, like all routines – is five miles before breakfast, six days a week. No more, no less. I’m not fast. On a flat route that run takes me 44 minutes, which is pretty pokey. Here’s what I’ve found: On days that I run, my mind is sharper, my mood is sunnier, and my judgment is sounder. I have more energy, not less.”
“Sometimes, when the crush of work is especially heavy, I skip my run for a day or two or three. I usually wonder in retrospect if I saved any time. Running jump-starts my brain, so I’ve typically done a good deal of work by the time I get home. I write and edit articles in my head. But when I don’t run, my brain doesn’t wake up until an hour after the rest of me.”
7. Increase Cognitive Flexibility
Have you ever got stuck on a problem and had a hard time trying to mentally switch gears? Well, research shows that running may help with your ability to effectively task switch and be mentally flexible.
“In a study comparing participants who engaged in interval running training versus those who participated in a physically active lifestyle, the runners showed the greatest increase in cognitive flexibility. Running essentially improves your ability to change between mental tasks quickly and efficiently,” according to a Verywell Fit article. “Being more cognitively flexible means that when faced with problems, you have the ability to quickly switch gears, adapt to change, and come up with a new plan of action.”
8. Running enhances confidence
These physical, mental and emotional benefits of running translate into something important: an increased sense of confidence.
“Running builds confidence like few other individual sports can. Runners grow stronger and surer of themselves with each and every footstrike,” according to the Verywell Fit article. “Running allows you to truly climb hills and clear obstacles; it provides a feeling of empowerment and freedom that comes with knowing that your legs and body are strong and capable.”
Some people also find confidence in the way running helps them manage mental health conditions, like major depressive disorder (MDD) or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Running had such an impact on Ashley Erickson’s mental health that she chose to share her story with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). She writes:
“Now at age 26, I can say that my anxiety disorder is under control, with the help and support of friends and family, running, medication, and health insurance. A lot of people who suffer from an anxiety disorder and depression aren’t as lucky.
I am sharing this story so that you understand what someone with GAD has gone through. In the case of my running, my anxiety has actually proved to be a strength, especially when it comes to controlling my breathing. In other aspects of my life, it was just a giant weight that kept me from living my best life.”
9. A faster track to dreamland
At the end of the day, running may also help your body’s ability to sleep. While researchers don’t fully understand the connection between exercise and sleep, it doesn’t take much to see a positive effect.
“The good news: People who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night. ‘It’s generally not going to take months or years to see a benefit,’” says Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital on the Johns Hopkins Medicine website. “And patients don’t need to feel like they have to train for the Boston Marathon to become a better sleeper.”
For some people, the physical demands are worth it, thanks to the mental health benefits that running helps them find one step at a time.
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