When I first started running nearly two decades ago, my only goal was to lose weight. As an overweight teenager, I spent most of my high school years on a never-ending search for the next best nutrition and exercise program that would take the pounds off quickly. After several failed attempts at crash dieting and countless hours of over-exercising, I turned to running.

And instantly, I was hooked.

Running became my “go-to” activity of choice. The freedom to exercise anywhere at any time, allowed me to maintain my weight loss. And the sense of camaraderie I experienced from being part of a running community, helped facilitate friendships and a sense of belonging that I so desperately needed.

But over time, running became more than just a method of weight loss or social stimulation. When my lifelong battle with anxiety took a turn for the worse, it was the time spent outside—feet to the pavement—which helped me to see that the mental and emotional benefits of exercise, far outweighed any of the physical benefits.

What the research says about exercise and mental health

Yes, stress and anxiety are a normal part of life. But when you consider that 40 million adults ages 18 or over are affected by anxiety disorders, and around 16.1 million adults aged 18 years or older in the U.S. experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, it’s no wonder scientists, researchers, and the mental health providers are looking for alternative ways, like exercise, to treat these debilitating conditions.

Running and other types of exercise, including walking, weight lifting, and yoga, all have the effect of decreasing the risk for depression and anxiety, as well a being an effective treatment agent for both mental health conditions.

“We have lots of research showing that exercise lifts mood, decreases anxiety and improves the body’s ability to withstand and recover from stress,” explains Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., President, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and owner of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago. “It is so effective that people can decrease or eliminate their need for medication and it can help people who have failed multiple attempts at different medications for depression,” she adds.

For years, “scientists have been studying the reasons why exercise has such a powerful effect on our mental well-being,” explains Cassiday, and now, studies are showing that exercise accomplishes several things that influence our mood and mind including:

  • Exercise helps to clear the bloodstream of stress-related chemicals and mechanically relaxes our muscles;
  • It decreases the inflammatory markers that are associated with poor mental health and helps to regulate and release chemicals in our brains that are associated with feeling good;
  • Exercise, specifically running, tends to expose us to sunshine which helps to increase our vitamin D3 levels, which we need in order to feel good and avoid depression and anxiety;
  • It also tends to regulate sleep and improve sleep quality, which has a positive impact on depression and anxiety symptoms;

Cassiday says these good effects start occurring after about 20 minutes of exercise and can last for hours afterward. “Exercise is one of those things that is a guaranteed win for anyone who wants to feel better emotionally.”

Running and mental health

It’s well known that running promotes the production and release of endorphins—your body’s natural pain and stress-fighting chemicals. In fact, anyone who has experienced “runner’s high” can tell you how powerful this rush of chemicals can be.

But did you know the time spent pounding the pavement may also reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and make you feel better?

According to a paper published in the US National Library of Medicine — National Institutes of Health, involvement in structured exercise has shown promise in alleviating symptoms of clinical depression, that may be long-lasting.

And the best part: you don’t have to go all out and train for a marathon, in order to reap the mental benefits of participating in your favorite sport. In fact, an average of five days a week for about fifty minutes each session is what is recommended for enhanced mental wellness.

Running as part of a treatment plan

By now, you should be asking yourself: “How did I did feel after my last run?” And if you’re dealing with any type of stress, chances are, you felt better in the hours after you finished exercising.

That’s because the mood-enhancing benefits that come from exercise, usually kick in about five to ten minutes after moderate exercise. While impressive on its own, this natural stress relief also extends well beyond the immediate benefits you feel during your cool-down—which makes running (and other forms of exercise) a powerful addition to any treatment plan.

Multiple studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise—and primarily jogging—reduces the symptoms of clinical depression. And according to studies cited by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, running and other forms of vigorous exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms and help you relax.

One of the most well-known researchers in the field of exercise and mental health, Dr. Michael Otto, explains in a Psychology Today article, that in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy and medication for the treatment of anxiety, there is increasing evidence for the value of exercise for treating both clinical anxiety disorders as well as more general difficulties with anxiety.

And since there is a myriad of health benefits resulting from participation in regular exercise including improved sleep, stress relief, and improvement in mood, mental health service providers can safely provide evidence-based physical activity interventions for individuals suffering from moderate to serious mental illness.

The bottom line

Anyone can experience the mental and emotional benefits of running. In fact, “the mental health benefits of exercise are the same for all age groups and even for people who have severe mental health disorders,” says Cassiday.

As for my story……running has evolved from a form of weight loss to a place of clarity and inner peace. Now when I run, I look up and out, rather than down and forward. I focus on my breath—and how my body feels—when it is connected to my mind. And I wake each day feeling thankful to have a powerful form of therapy that involves a pair of running shoes and a long stretch of highway.