It’s often said that you shouldn’t run from your problems. In fact, maybe you should consider running towards them.
“To me, life is like a marathon. It’s full of ups and downs that take your breath away.”Meike Kuipers, trail runner.
When it comes to stress and anxiety, there’s a clear link between exercise and the positive role it plays in boosting your mental health. Whether you’re lifting weights, holding a yoga pose, or jogging around the park, you’re not only enhancing your mental wellbeing but also decreasing the risk of developing conditions such as depression.
So, in this light of this, can running help anxiety? And if so, how?
Let’s start with the science behind exercise and anxiety. How does regularly going for a run help the body cope with stress? Simply put: your brain rewards your efforts by producing endorphins – chemicals that act as natural painkillers. Not only do these hormones lift your mood but they clear any stress-related chemicals from your bloodstream and actively cause your muscles to relax.
“Running helps me find the gratitude and peace that I may not have been feeling just moments before starting. Whatever felt suffocating or overwhelming before dissipates and doesn’t feel so heavy anymore.”Katie Zaferes, professional triathlete.
While these effects are immediate, regularly going for a run can help with your anxiety long-term by regulating the release of these feel-good chemicals in your brain. They also decrease the markers of inflammation in the body that are often associated with poor mental health.
Exercising also boosts the amount of norepinephrine you produce, which is a very handy hormone to have. This chemical helps the brain moderate its response to stress. That means every time you run, you’re essentially giving yourself extra tools to cope with anxiety in the future.
One of the other benefits of running is that exercising outdoors means you naturally boost your vitamin D3 levels. Simply by spending 20 minutes in the sunshine, you will top up your levels of this mood-regulating vitamin.
Running is not a ‘cure’ for mental illness but it can help to change the way you use your brain temporarily. Many people find that it quietens the mind, especially if you’re prone to anxious thoughts about your life or the future, as you focus on the process of running.
“Running helps me clear my mind but also to increase my focus as I become more aware of how my body is feeling, where I am placing my feet and holding my torso and arms, my breath, the wind in my face, and sweat beading on my brow.”Michael Wardian, ultra-marathoner.
In a sense, your body has more important things to do when you’re running than worry about ‘what if’. You concentrate on the terrain under your feet, the people around you, the rhythm of your stride, and the music in your ears.
By not being lost in your stressful thoughts, you will also be more aware of the world. You’ll begin to notice the animals in the park, the details on buildings, other runners who are also regulars of the same route. This is why some people find running to be a great mindfulness practice.
Can running improve mental health?
“People think that exercise (such as running) needs to be fast and take hard effort to be worthwhile, but there’s so much worth in moving, whatever the pace. From walking to running, the benefits mentally can be the same.”Susie Chan, ultra-runner.
Usually, when we think about running, we only consider the benefits of being physically in shape. However, you can also exercise with the aim to improve your ‘mental fitness’ as well.
Pull those trainers on, get your endorphins pumping and flex your neurological muscles, as you work out your mind-body connection. Boost your running with some meditation and mindfulness to the mix and you will have a comprehensive mental health training plan that can help with your anxiety.
Some hidden benefits of running for your mental health:
- It improves both the amount and quality of your sleep. This is great news as good rest and recovery have a positive impact on the symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions.
- For those who struggle with insomnia, going for a run about five or six hours before you go to sleep can help by signaling to the body (through the raising then cooling of the body’s core temperature) that now is the time to rest.
- Pushing yourself by doing some intensive cardio makes you smarter. This type of exercise causes your brain to create new brain cells and more protein, which enhances its overall performance as well as helping you learn and make decisions.
- Research has shown that making time for exercise actually makes you more productive and energetic. So while you may feel that taking time out of your day to go for a run isn’t the best use of your time when you’re busy, it actually boosts your capacity to do more.
- If you’re struggling for inspiration, switch things up by going for a run. The endorphin boost from exercising can enhance your creativity for up to two hours, so you will probably come back sweaty and full of ideas.
- When it comes to exercise, the long-term benefits for your mind are significant. You can slow the natural process of cognitive decline that begins at 45 by regularly working out from the age of 25 onwards. This will help protect your hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning, by boosting the chemicals that support it.
Tips for Anxious Runners
If you want to give running a try to help with your anxiety, here are some suggestions that could curb any concerns.
“The daily process and routine of running give structure to my days. It provides a sense of normalcy even when things are decidedly not normal. That familiarity in and of itself can be a useful tool to reduce general anxiety in my case.”Noah Droddy, professional runner.
- Start small and secure: only feel safe near your house? Start by running up and down your street till it feels ok. Feel anxious about seeing anyone you know? Warm-up by walking to a nearby park. Aim to just run for a few minutes your first couple of times, be gentle with yourself and listen to your body.
- Run like no one is watching: because they aren’t. It’s easy to feel very self-conscious when you first start running – to think people are judging your form, what you are wearing, or simply that you are jogging. The reality is, no one cares.
- Take a break: if you start to feel panicky, stop and have a sit-down, a sip of water or watch the world go by. Take some deep breaths, let your body calm down, and then decide if you want to keep going.
- Tune out: if your mind won’t switch off, distract it with some music or a podcast to give yourself a little break from your worries.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.