Mental Health Benefits of Jogging and Running

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Aside from the physical health benefits of cardiovascular exercise like running, there are mental health benefits of running as well. Many runners find that running helps improve their mood and relieve stress, for example, and research supports this belief.

Running, jogging, and even brisk walking increases blood flow to the brain and releases natural mood-elevating compounds. Learn about the relationship between running and mental health and the short- and long-term benefits you reap when you commit to a regular running routine.

Running Improves Mood

In addition to relieving daily stress, running and jogging can have positive influences on your attitude. The rush you feel during a run can lead to a boost in mental well-being or create a general sense of contentment.

Short-Term Benefits of Running

Many runners are familiar with the emotional boost that arises from running known as the "runner's high." This sensation triggers feel-good emotions that can elevate your mood and reduce stress. And there is considerable evidence to show that running can produce positive mental health benefits in the short term.

An extensive review of existing literature published in 2020 analyzed the relationship between running and mental health. Of the 116 studies that were included in the review, researchers noted that running improved mood in subjects who participated in various intensities and lengths of runs, including just a single bout of running.

For some time, researchers believed that positive feelings occur during running due to the release of endorphins. But now it's understood that endorphins do not pass from the blood into the brain, though they do help prevent the sensation of pain from being felt in the muscles.

Current research shows that biochemical substances known as endocannabinoids cause the feelings of euphoria commonly associated with a runner's high. Endocannabinoids are actually cannabis-like substances that are naturally produced by the body. Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids play a role in neurological communication with the brain.

Longer-Term Benefits of Running

There is some evidence that engaging in exercise such as running may help alleviate symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders. Here's what some of the research has to say.

The 2020 review mentioned above noted that longer-term running interventions of up to 20 weeks showed improved markers of a range of mental health outcomes. Researchers found that runners often experienced lower levels of depression and anxiety and greater psychological well-being compared to non-runners.

Additionally, a 2016 review noted that lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with a greater risk for depression. In 2017, a study of over 100 adults noted that exercise improved mood and increased calmness compared to non-exercise, which only increased feelings associated with agitation.

Another study published in 2013 found that exercise was moderately more effective than no therapy for reducing depressive symptoms. However, the study found that exercise was no more effective than antidepressants.

Caveats

Running or jogging is not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Additional research is needed to determine its exact impact on the prevention and treatment of psychological conditions. Because depression is characterized by low energy and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, people with symptoms of depression may find it more difficult to stay motivated to run.

Running Relieves Stress

Stress relief is another valuable benefit of running or jogging. Going for a jog might provide short-term stress relief by helping you get your mind off your troubles, but there are longer-lasting benefits as well.

Other studies analyzed in the 2020 review compared measures of mental health among runners and non-running comparisons and found that runners had lower stress and greater psychological well-being compared to sedentary controls.

In addition, other scientific literature suggests that sticking to your running regimen during times of stress leads to greater resilience, which can make you more capable of handling the challenges life throws at you.

Research shows that people who take up running experience improved emotional well-being, relief from tension, depression, aggression, anger, and anxiety, and a boost in self-image and self-confidence, mood, and happiness. However, it's important to note that not all subjects report significant effects.

Running Boosts Brain Health

Running can help train the mind as much as the body. You learn how to focus and develop the determination to overcome obstacles and fatigue. You gain a new perspective on large and small problems alike and increase your capacity to endure and overcome them.

The endurance that gets your body through long runs or the will to simply get out the door when you'd rather skip a workout are what give you strength in other areas of your life.

Memory

Running may also lead to changes inside the brain itself. In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers scanned the brains of competitive distance runners. They found that the runners had more connections between the frontal-parietal network and other areas of the brain that are associated with self-control and working memory.

Researchers believe that memory improves due to the increased aerobic capacity and cognitive demands of running.

Cellular Growth

Physical activities like running or brisk walking may also promote cellular growth to help prevent cognitive decline. In fact, exercise is one of the key factors associated with the growth of new neurons in the brain, a process known as neurogenesis.

A 2012 study published in Neurology found that older adults with greater levels of physical activity had increased protection of white and gray matter density, less atrophy, and reduced white matter lesions, which are common biomarkers associated with aging.

Cognitive Flexibility

Evidence also suggests that running might have another unique benefit for the brain. 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.

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.

Running Builds Self-Esteem

Running builds confidence like few other individual sports can. Runners grow stronger and surer of themselves with each and every footstrike. 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.

Researchers have found that physical activities like running and jogging are directly related to better self-esteem. Regular exercise can lead to improved perceptions of fitness and body image, both of which were linked to self-esteem.

The 2020 review also analyzed studies that included only runners and compared different levels and types of running. Some of the studies showed a positive association with higher self-identity and self-efficacy, with lower levels of depression. Additionally, studies that investigated marathon training showed a positive relationship with self-esteem and psychological coping.

Being able to observe how far you’ve come in terms of your mileage, time, or overall running ability can be highly motivating and build confidence.

Running Enhances Sleep

Running can also improve sleep quality, which in turn, has mental health benefits. Lack of sleep can lead to the onset of stress, anxiety, and depression, whereas certain mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, as well as the aforementioned, can also exacerbate sleep problems.

A 2011 study looked at data for more than 3,000 adults from the 2005–2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to assess the relationship between physical activity and sleep. The researchers determined that participants who met physical activity guidelines were 65% less likely to experience daytime fatigue compared to subjects who did not get enough regular exercise.

In addition, a 2012 study of about 50 adolescents found that subjects who ran for 30 minutes in the mornings slept better and saw an improvement in their moods after three weeks compared to the non-running control group. Researchers concluded that regular physical activity should be encouraged to promote quality sleep and improved well-being.

A Word From Verywell

Running is certainly good for the body, but research evidence shows that it has many important benefits for the mind as well. Whether you're a casual runner or a dedicated marathoner, your regular running routine can produce a number of positive effects on your mental health.

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