If you’re looking for a cheap, effective way to exercise and improve your mental health then you should think seriously about trying running. You don’t need to go fast or far to get benefits for your physical and mental health.
Runners have always claimed they experience all sorts of amazing sensations when they run, from emotional highs to zen-like calm. Scientists have taken a while to be able to work out some of the reasons this is, but these days the research is beginning to back up the hype.
Every time you exercise your body it responds in a huge variety of ways. The benefits to muscles, heart and lungs are well understood, but more than ever we are beginning to understand what happens to your brain as well, and the news is good.
- Running can calm the annoying inner voice
If you are seeking a little inner calm, as well as better concentration, then running is a great option. A whole raft of research has shown that getting out and about really helps what is known as “executive function”, which includes the ability to concentrate, ignore distractions and solve problems.
At the same time, an Arizona-based research team has found evidence that running helps to reduce the activity of a part of your brain known as the “default mode network”. These are the bits of your brain which start to take over when you are bored or distracted, and activity here has been linked with depression.
This really strengthens our understanding of the links between running and mental health. When you run sensibly, you can help you achieve many things that mindfulness meditation can also bring: more awareness and focus, and less mind wandering.
- Hormones link running and mental health
When you start running your body begins doing some amazing things, lots of them to do with hormones pumped into your bloodstream by different glands.
This includes a group called beta-endorphins. These hormones are incredibly powerful, improving your sense of happiness and reducing your sensations of pain. They work in similar ways to opiates like cocaine, but without the destructive side-effects. German researchers have shown that levels of this chemical in the brain rise dramatically during running.
Another fun little group of hormones is endocannabinoids. They act a bit like cannabis, making you calmer and dulling pain, but they are produced by the body. Recent research suggests running can boost the levels of endocannabinoids in your brain.
All of this means that running can be a way to get a natural emotional high, while also getting you physically fitter.
- Running can flush out the bad hormones
If you’ve ever experienced severe stress, anxiety or depression then you probably know that your brain doesn’t just produce hormones that make you feel happy. A host of other hormones work together to produce feelings like fear, sadness and desperation.
We do need these hormones to help us survive and cope with life. Fear is one of the body’s ways of getting us to react to danger, for example. But too much of these hormones is not healthy.
One such hormone is kynurenine, which is produced by your liver when you are stressed. Some of it can end up in your brain, and if it builds up kynurenine can contribute to stress-induced depression.
When you run, your body produces an enzyme which acts on kynurenine to stop it getting into your brain. So, if you are stressed, a run can literally flush out those bad hormones before it has a chance to cause you long-term problems.
- Running puts you in control
Whatever your level of fitness, running is something you can do without a gym membership, or any gear more complicated than running shoes. You have total control over how hard you work.
Just having this sort of control can be very liberating, because you can decide how long or short, hilly or flat your run is. You don’t have to keep up with anyone else or worry about whether a piece of gym gear is available; you can exercise in your own mental zone.
You can also run almost whenever you want, as long as the weather isn’t too extreme. There’s no need to pack a bag or drive to a facility like a swimming pool or gym, so you can feel the urge to exercise and be out doing it in just a few minutes.
- Running can help you to connect with others
The running community is generally a welcoming and positive one, and you will find that you start spotting familiar faces if you run often. A little wave and a smile are a nice recognition that you’re all out there and sharing the experience, regardless of how fast you are.
That experience, even if it is rare and fleeting, plays to our natural enjoyment of being part of a community.
A range of free apps can also connect you with fellow local runners, and you may well discover new connections with friends and colleagues as a result.
The apps usually enable you to record your runs and many will encourage you to hit targets, and let you share your progress via social media if you want.
Overall there are lots of great reasons to run for exercise, especially if you want to lift your mood. Research is showing that running and mental health, even if you don’t go fast or often, are closely linked.
Even if you don’t want to commit to running as your main form of exercise, it can have benefits. It can strengthen your heart and lungs, boosting cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength. But the impact of running on your mood, mental health and sense of wellbeing make it one of the best ways to be healthier in body and spirit.