Running Linked to Improved and Lasting Mental Health

Running can boost self-esteem, lower stress, and so much more.

older man running in the park

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Key Takeaways

  • Ongoing studies show a clear link between endurance exercise and overall cognitive wellbeing
  • Running stimulates the growth of new grey matter in the brain
  • Running releases mood-boosting endorphins that can decrease the negative effects of stress

The past few months in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic have kept us mostly indoors, preventing us from exercising as much as we should. That can have a real effect on our mental health. As states cautiously lift restrictions, running might be the perfect way to get back out there and start feeling better all around.

And if you’re a runner, competitive or not, you know that hitting the pavement strengthens your lungs and your legs. Recent studies show that running can do so much more than that: It can strengthen your mind, too.  

Researchers at the University of Basel and the University of Tsukuba recently conducted a large scale analysis of a growing body of scientific evidence that further supports the link between physical exercise to improved cognitive health.

Their findings suggest that various forms of physical exertion, running included, can be beneficial for cognitive function depending on the intensity and duration of an individual's routine.

Why This Matters

While the mental health benefits of running may be lesser-known than the physical benefits, they are just as grounded in science. Running is associated with improved self-esteem and confidence, improved mood and fewer mood swings, reduced stress and anxiety, better sleep, more energy, and increased focus.

While the mental health benefits of running may be lesser-known than the physical benefits, they are just as grounded in science. Running is associated with improved self-esteem and confidence, improved mood and fewer mood swings, reduced stress and anxiety, better sleep, more energy, and increased focus.

That’s not even to mention the emotional boost that is the coveted runner’s high — it’s a real thing! 

To understand exactly how running induces these mental health benefits, read on to learn how running can actually change your brain, and how it impacts your hormones, nervous system, and other factors that influence your mental health — and then lace up your shoes and hit the pavement.

Running Actually Changes Your Brain

Young woman runs outdoors, alongside greenery.
Running can lead to favorable changes in your brain, which result in benefits like increased resilience. Getty Images.

Running can quite literally train the mind as it trains the body. There’s anecdotal evidence for that, of course: When you run, you develop values like determination, focus, adaptivity. You learn how to tap into will-power and self-control, and you learn how to push through pain and overcome fatigue. 

As it turns out, the evidence isn’t entirely anecdotal. Scientists have made some interesting conclusions about running and the human brain. For example, a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that long-distance runners have more connections in areas of their brain that are associated with memory and self-control. 

Other research suggests that running can result in changes to the brain associated with resilience, or your ability to bounce back from tough situations. The research isn’t conclusive, but it would make sense: Runners tend to be resilient people, as they bounce back from the physical stress of running over and over again, and, as mentioned earlier, have a lot of determination and will-power. 

And in animals, running has been shown to actually create new brain cells. While research is needed in humans to determine whether running can promote the growth of brain cells in human brains, it’s promising to see those findings in animals. 

Dr. Zlatin Ivanov echoes that this phenomenon is probable in humans: “From a neurological perspective, running stimulates the growth of new grey matter in the brain,” he tells Verywell Fit. “Just three to four weeks of running can mean thousands of newly produced brain cells,” adding that running “also helps us be more focused and adaptable to changes.”

The Many Mental Health Benefits of Running

All those brain changes must add up to something, right? As a matter of fact, they add up to many things — from self-esteem to energy to overall mood, whatever facet of mental health you’re looking to improve upon, there’s a good chance that starting a running habit can help you get there.  

Running Can Relieve Stress and Reduce Anxiety

“Running can be a form of stress relief due to its effects on the happy hormones,” Dr. Ivanov says, singling out the feel-good chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. In addition, “Running can also be an outlet for most individuals, just like any exercise,” he says.

Sure enough, research shows that running releases endorphins that make you feel good and it’s pretty well-known that exercise can help combat anxiety and other mood disorders. Some research even suggests that running, or any type of physical activity, can help you develop resilience, making it easier for you to shake off daily stressors.

Running Can Raise Your Self-Esteem and Confidence

Running can improve your self-esteem and confidence in a few ways: If you’re on a weight-loss journey, running can help from the standpoint that it edges you closer and closer to your goals. When you run consistently, you’ll see yourself achieve progress consistently. 

Some runners also find that their self-esteem improves when they consistently hit their pace or mileage goals, or beat a personal record. For example, if you set a weekly mileage goal of 10 miles, you’ll feel ecstatic when you complete all 10, and even more so if you run more than that. Beating your all-time best time on your mile, 5K, 10K, and other important races always feels gratifying, too. 

Researchers have actually found that regular exercise leads to better perceptions of one’s own fitness, as well as improved body image. 

Running Can Help Stabilize Your Mood

If you find yourself irritable, sad, or dealing with mood swings, running may help you control and stabilize your mood. The rush of endorphins that you get during and after a run can help elevate your mood in general, Dr. Petkov says, and may even help with long-term mood stabilization. 

A 2017 review of studies shows that acute exercise — or one bout of exercise — induces many favorable changes in the brain, such as increased levels of endocannabinoids, that boost your mood. 

Also, physical activity may help improve symptoms of anxiety and other mood disorders, according to a 2015 study in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. And although exercise hasn’t been found to be more effective than antidepressant medications , it is known to help in the absence of other therapies. 

Running Can Help You Sleep Better at Night

The link between physical activity and improved sleep is clear: Exercise can both enhance sleep quality and prolong sleep duration, according to a 2018 review on the relationship between sleep and physical activity. Increasing physical activity can even help patients with insomnia get more sleep.

Further research is needed to understand exactly why exercise influences sleep in this way, but there’s no denying that it does help.

Running Can Boost Your Energy

You might think that adding more items to your to-do list — such as a 30-minute run — would zap your energy. If you’re new to exercising, this may be the case at first, but over time, running can actually boost your daily energy. 

“Running can increase your stamina and therefore your energy reserves,” Dr. Velimir Petkov tells Verywell Fit. “Therefore, people who are in better physical shape are able to do more work in less time than those who aren’t.”

Plus, as evidenced above, running can improve your sleep quality and duration — something that can automatically result in more energy during the day. 

You might find yourself pleasantly surprised at how much a daily exercise habit boosts your energy: According to the American Council on Exercise, citing a 2008 University of Georgia study in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, exercising for just 20 minutes per day reduced complaints of persistent fatigue in people who didn’t previously have an exercise habit. 

Additionally, a 2012 review of studies on physical activity and feelings of fatigue reported that the evidence for exercise as an antidote to tiredness is “strong” and “consistent,” although the study authors note that the actual biological mechanisms that make exercise protective against exhaustion are still unknown. 

Running Can Improve Your Productivity, Memory and Focus

Find yourself forgetting small things here and there, like letting emails slip through the cracks or telling yourself over and over that you’ll call mom back? Pick up a running habit — it might be the key to finally crossing those small to-dos off of your list. 

Research shows that endurance activities, such as running, can strengthen the connections in your brain that are important for memory and self-control. Other research suggests that running can also improve your “cognitive flexibility” or how well you’re able to switch from one task to another with good focus.

In fact, in a study that looked at runners and people who performed other types of physical activity, runners showed the most significant improvements in cognitive flexibility.

Improved productivity is also kind of a byproduct of boosted self-esteem, Dr. Petkov says. “By boosting your ego, confidence and self-esteem, running can have a positive effect on your productivity,” he says. “People that are confident and sure of themselves generally are more energetic and productive than those that are less confident and less sure in their abilities.”

Running May Prevent Cognitive Decline

Of all the mental health benefits of running, preventing cognitive decline is arguably the most significant. A 2018 review of studies in Frontiers in Psychology states that physical activity has an “enormous” benefit on the brain, in terms of both cognitive functioning and wellbeing.

The review shows that exercise can increase gray matter in the brain, improve blood flow to the brain, and increase levels of important proteins in the brain, among other changes. These changes may help keep your brain healthy over time, preventing cognitive decline as you age. 

A 2015 study in Advances in Physiology Education suggests that physical activity should be part of the overall attempt to prevent age-related cognitive decline.

The bottom line? A running habit can keep your brain sharp as you get older.  

Some Is Better Than None

You needn’t be a world-class elite athlete to take advantage of all that running has to offer. In fact, Dr. Ivanov says that running just 30 minutes per day is enough to get your mind and body in shape. 

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest that all adults get a minimum of 150 minutes (that’s two hours and 30 minutes) of moderate intensity exercise each week, or a minimum of 75 minutes (that’s one hour and 15 minutes) of vigorous intensity exercise each week. 

When it comes to running, you can get 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise by jogging 30 minutes each weekday. Your pace should be fast enough so that you’re breathing heavy and sweating, but not so fast that you can’t talk at all). 

If you want to do vigorous intensity exercise instead, try running intervals (such as walk for one minute, run for one minute), or mile repeats (run one mile as fast as you can, rest for equivalent minutes, and then repeat up to three times). 

To find out what pace you should run at, use our running and walking pace calculator. 

Can You Run too Much? 

Running can certainly have a negative outcome when done in excess, Dr. Ivanov says. 

“A possible sign for excessive running and negative effects on mental health is an individual’s developing obsession,” he explains. “An individual might become upset or discouraged if certain goals are not met, possibly leading to extreme measures, such as depression and lack of motivation.” 

Running too much can also lead to physical consequences, such as persistent soreness and fatigue, which in turn may lead to frustration, irritability, mood swings, lack of focus, and other emotional symptoms.

Excessive amounts of running may lead to overtraining syndrome, of which symptoms are chronic fatigue, decreased physical performance, loss of appetite, decreased immunity, loss of enthusiasm for exercise, and dreading your workouts or runs. 

“Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing,” Dr. Petkov says. “If you get to a point where running no longer provides you with energy but actually makes you more tired, it is a sign that perhaps you are overdoing it and you should take a break.” 

Just like anything else, Dr. Petkov says, running should be done in moderation and with breaks in between each run, especially if you’re new to running.

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Additional Reading
  • Kim TK, Han PL. Physical Exercise Counteracts Stress-induced Upregulation of Melanin-concentrating Hormone in the Brain and Stress-induced Persisting Anxiety-like Behaviors. Exp Neurobiol. 2016;25(4):163-73. doi:10.5607/en.2016.25.4.163

  • Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2020-2028.

  • Uchida S, Shioda K, Morita Y, Kubota C, Ganeko M, Takeda N. Exercise effects on sleep physiology. Front Neurol. 2012;3:48.