As a clinical psychologist specializing in athlete mental health and performance (and as a recreational athlete myself), I see firsthand on both a personal and professional level how powerful movement is for our individual and collective well-being. I often hear statements along the lines of “running is my therapy” and “movement is medicine” that anecdotally attest to just how powerful exercise is for managing stress and working through the hardships each of us face.
Although running and exercise on a more general level are not direct replacements for counseling or therapy, there are many therapeutic components inherent to a regular exercise or running program. Those that maintain a regular rhythm of movement in their lives verify the powerful impact on mood, emotional well-being, and overall mental health. Researchers are beginning to look more closely at the links between exercise and mental health, including the possible protective mechanisms for concerns such as anxiety and depression, helping us move our understanding from anecdotal to scientific.
What do studies suggest about running and mental health?
An exhaustive study, aptly titled A Scoping Review of the Relationship between Running and Mental Health, was published in November 2020 and combed over data from 116 studies. When they paired down the results, they found a total of 16 studies that looked at mental health factors for runners compared to non-runners, finding that “runners had lower depression and anxiety, lower stress, higher psychological well-being, and better mood compared to sedentary controls.” 11 studies indicated a single bout of running on a treadmill leads to positive differences in mental health outcomes, including reductions in anxiety and total mood disturbance while improving self-esteem, self-efficacy, and well-being. And longer-term programs implementing walking and/or jogging ranging from 2-20 weeks showed consistent support in improved mood and lowered stress reactivity, with particular findings supporting longer-term exercise interventions for those known to struggle with depression. This research supports other findings from a study that conferred physical activity to not only be a treatment strategy but a preventative mechanism in preventing depression as well.
How does exercise help mental health?
Despite all of these findings connecting exercise to improved mental health, most researchers continue to offer a “we’re not quite sure why” understanding about just what it is that connects these dots. To illustrate that point further, I would ask you to contemplate the same question. If you’re reading this you probably already have a sense that running and exercise are key components of your physical and mental well-being, but when needing to explain just how your daily run aids in your mental health, I wonder what answers you would convey. There’s certainly some consideration of the biological changes that occur with exercise from increasing dopamine and serotonin in the brain, to releasing endorphins and endocannabinoids. Other physiological speculations point to reduced oxidative stress markers in the body and increased neuronal regeneration and growth in key parts of the brain. Those are likely difficult experiences to feel daily. At some level, the improvement in how we feel when we exercise is self-evident, and trying to figure out the exact chemistry behind what leads to this betterment may leave us scratching our heads. For most of us, acknowledging that there is a component in the complex biological matrix may be adequate, as there is likely equally as much value in the impact on our psychological framework with exercise as there is on our biochemistry.
Changing how we think about running and mental health
One of the central tenets behind most therapeutic interventions aimed at improving mental health, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is bringing awareness to and subsequently working on how we think. The way our mind works is critical to our mental health in general, with depression tending to impact our views of our self, our future, and our world. Anxiety tends to focus on concerns related to lacking trust or confidence about things working out in our favor. Both involve significant changes in how we perceive and narrate our lives, often turning our outlook into one of doom and gloom or potential catastrophe.
Movement can shift perception
Exercise fundamentally shifts our perception. Movement can help us sort through concerns and see things from a new perspective. And it’s this psychological impact that may serve as one of the key ingredients that improve our mental health. Mental health requires a healthy repetition of believing we are capable. Running provides a means in which this is objectively attainable regularly, and allows us to shift our self-talk from a narration of “I can’t” to “I can.” Empowerment along with discipline are key protective factors in our mental health, and exercise builds upon both of these factors each and every time we choose to lace up our running shoes.
Self-determination is the key
Self-determination is likely another important psychological ingredient. The willingness to persevere in the face of hardship uplifts the spirit, in turn teaching us that we can do hard things. If depression is a paucity of hope, running requires you to muster both courage and determination to forge ahead. In turn, overcoming personally created challenges bolsters self-esteem. The beauty of this framework is that hardship is relative to you individually, yet the pursuit of purposefully working through a challenge is simultaneously understood by all other runners who face the same obstacles, albeit at different paces or distances. The social understanding, connection, and camaraderie we forge with others who understand the power of running adds another protective psychological layer in feeling validated and understood by like-minded others, giving our daily running regime not just individual purpose, but a sense of connection to something much larger than ourselves.
Commitment to goals
What’s more, pursuing and ultimately achieving clearly defined goals on a regular basis gives meaning and purpose to our lives. For those like races, the medals hanging on our walls are symbolic. They don’t just represent crossing the finish line, but of the dedication required to stay on task for our own personal glory. Meaning and purpose are fundamentally central to psychological well-being and are often a core of struggle when facing mental health concerns. The daily commitment to movement provides a powerful reminder of meaning and purpose.
Researchers warn against thinking of exercise as a panacea for mental health treatment, while at the same time strongly endorsing it as a necessary treatment arm for those struggling with just about any mental health condition. There’s plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support beginning, continuing, or maintaining an exercise plan in your daily life. I hear many who feel overwhelmed by this process, not knowing where to start or how to begin. I hear others express concern that these benefits are only reserved for more serious runners. The data is pretty clear that even a single bout of movement will likely have an immediate, short-term positive impact on your mental health. It’s important to permit yourself to start wherever you are, with whatever capacity makes sense. A 5-minute walk is a great place to start.
Please note: This blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.