Dr Victor Thompson
Why does running improve our mental health?
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
News broke today showing evidence from a systematic review in The British Journal of Sports Medicine of 14 studies, with over 230,000 participants, that running was associated with a 27% reduction in mortality rate. There was no demonstrable variance in benefit associated with how far, how fast or how often participants ran. In short, any running was good.
This got me thinking about why running might be good for our mental health – with physical and mental health going together, and with me as a psychologist.
First off, I have a confession to make. I am a keen runner. I compete in triathlons, which involve a run element. So, you might think that I am biased. I’m sure I am. But then again, maybe this experience gives me a good insight. I’ll let you make up your mind about my position.
Now, back to answering the question of how running might be good for our mental health.
When we run, several beneficial things happen. Here are seven:
We take ourselves away form other situations. We physically remove ourselves from other situations which may be associated with challenge, stress, negativity… When running, we are away from these stressors, which will have a beneficial impact on what we are thinking about.
We are doing something for ourselves. As a consequence, we are telling ourselves that we are important enough to be prioritised, to do something that we want to do, or think is important for ourselves, because we are worth it. Hence, it is good for our self-esteem.
We get a release of our endogenous opiates (happy hormones, runners high), which help to reduce physical sensations of discomfort and pain, and increase our emotional feelings of contentment, calmness and happiness.
If we run with a goal in mind, then we have something that we are aiming for, with greater sense of purpose, progression and later, achievement with the satisfaction that this brings.
If we run with other people (friends or a club), there is time for socialising, connecting, sharing an activity and a purpose.
Running gives us time to daydream a little, to mentally process what’s going on for us in our life, to come to a greater understanding, to put things away, clearing some of the clutter. This experience is greater if you run alone, without extra inputs such as headphones with playing music or podcasts which take your attention.
If we are anxious or depressed, then the positive impact of running on our mental health and psychological wellbeing, can be very important, as our mood, self-esteem and confidence can be improved and remain at a better level for some time after our run.
With these benefits, combined with a 27% reduction in mortality, what are you waiting for? Get out there and move a bit more – run, jog, or simply walk a bit faster – whatever is a doable challenge for you. It might be one of the best decisions you make.
Reference: Pedisic Z, Shrestha N, Kovalchik S, et al. Is running associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and is the more the better? A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 04 November 2019. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-100493