Mental Health

Written by

William Howell

May 11, 2022

The (Scientifically-Proven) Mental Health Benefits of Running

Because the benefits of running extend well beyond just your quads, calves, glutes, speed and endurance...

Girl running with a big smile.

Running is epic - fact. But you already know that. You know that lacing up your trainers and heading outside for a run of any duration will boost your fitness, teach you healthy habits, improve your endurance, get you into the great outdoors, help you live longer, make you look better and help you smash your running goals, whatever they are. And yet there are times when all these positive changes aren't enough to help you resist the siren calls of a Netflix-binge session that calls you back to the sofa. 

But what if the health benefits aren’t just physical? 

​​That's right. The benefits of running extend well beyond just your quads, calves, glutes, speed and endurance; running also relieves your mind of stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression. Translation: your mind needs a running regimen just as much as your body does.

You see, when that part of your brain that wants to go for a run overpowers the part of your brain that doesn’t and you start pounding the pavement, your body actually releases a cocktail of endorphins and serotonin that flood your brain, improving your mood and lifting your spirit, as well as all those other mental health niggles we mentioned above (yeah, we’re looking at you stress, depression and anxiety). But here’s the best bit: when you improve your mood, you’ll also find other aspects of your life improving too, such as your sleep. Good old body-recovering, brain-relaxing, productivity-increasing, performance-enhancing sleep.

So whether you’re looking for new ways to improve your post-run recovery or you’re simply looking for ways to make your cerebral wellbeing a priority, here are some scientifically-proven ways in which running can improve your mental health:

Runner having a talk.

Running is proven to: Make You Happy

There’s a 100% chance you’ve heard about that fabled runner’s high. Well, here’s the thing: it’s totally real, incredibly powerful and backed-up by science. The way it works is this: when you go for a long run, usually half-an-hour or more, your body will start to release endorphins that act like a natural drug, making you feel everything from energised to happy, like really-really happy. 

And that’s just the beginning of the good vibes because, as scientists have now discovered, running for an extended period of time will also encourage a hormone known as leptin to drop off, and when leptin drops off your body encourages even more dopamine to flow around your brain – and that right there is going to leave you feeling epic

Running is proven to: Boost Cognitive Function

For most people in their 20s and early-30s, the only time you have to worry about a declining cognitive function is on a Friday and Saturday night, after telling yourself you’ll only have one beer. But as you grow older, you’ll find your mental functions become less nimble and flexible. That’s where running comes in. 

According to those in long white lab coats, running is an extremely effective way to help generate new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus; the part of your brain that’s responsible for holding long-term memories, controlling spatial navigation and allowing you to work through complex problems and decisions. In fact, this scientific research goes so far as to suggest that running can actually increase the size of your hippocampus by 2%, which is enough to reduce your chances of both dementia and cognitive decline.

Running is proven to: Reduces Anxiety

The fact any of us are here is a miracle, or to put it into more understandable terms: it's the probability of 2.5 million people getting together (roughly the population of Chicago), each of them rolling a trillion-sided dice and they all come up the exact same number -- say, 479,743,268,007. So it goes without saying, we should all be super-thankful for just being here and none of us should take the beauty of life for granted. Easy. Except it’s not. Instead, with everything going on in the world - especially in your world - it’s no surprise that the number of people suffering with anxiety is on the rise. That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that running has been proven to help reduce your body’s stress hormones – especially adrenaline and cortisol – which in turn reduces your feelings of generalised anxiety. And it’s not just anxiety. Let’s say you struggle with panic attacks – simply lacing up your running shoes and heading outside for a gentle jog has been proven to be a real mood-booster. 

Runners hugging each other.

Running is proven to: Help You Bond Socially

There’s a ton of reasons our team gets such a buzz from hosting our epic Runna events, and the social bonds we get to see form – and soak up ourselves – are right up there at the top. That’s because running with friends, meeting like-minded people or simply surrounding yourself with people that motivate and inspire allows you the opportunity to make real-life, in-person connections as you start to support one another. 

That’s what the Runna community is all about for us. It’s about lifting those around you and helping them become the best version of themselves. But it’s not just about increasing your performance and motivation because running with others – and being surrounded by the same kind of support – has also been proven to help alleviate anxiety, depression and loneliness. 

Running is proven to: Help You Sleeping Better

It’s the little things in life that always hit different. Pulling on clothes fresh out of the dryer. Hearing a song you used to love and had completely forgotten about. Spelling out your name with a sparkler. But the best feeling of them all is collapsing onto your bed with gently achy limbs and remembering all the highlights from your run – like when you had to leap over that giant puddle and you landed effortlessly in your stride – as you drift off to sleep. Well, the reason this little feeling is so calming is because your body releases chemicals both during and after you run that help relax your body and encourage a deep sleep.

Running is proven to: Build Self-Confidence

These days, thanks to scientific research, it’s pretty common knowledge that running helps to prevent and alleviate certain health problems – from obesity to diabetes – while also improves your mental health and wellbeing. But what is slightly less common knowledge is just how much running can give your confidence a boost too. In fact, those who run regularly have been found to have much higher levels of self-esteem, improved moods and a better resilience to stress. How is this possible? The answer: that runner’s high you keep hearing about. Yepp. Those endorphins that help keep your body and mind working in sync will also give you a sense of courage, fearlessness and accomplishment that you’ll start to carry into other areas of your life.

Running is proven to: Reduce Stress

Believe it or not, keeping up with a regular running plan or routine is actually the secret to maintaining a Buddha-esque level of calm and serenity – and here’s why: when you run, you’re encouraging a bunch of endorphins and endocannabinoids (read: feel-good neurotransmitters) to flow through your body. Yepp. You guessed it: I’m talking about that legendary runner’s high again. But here’s the best part: because of these natural chemicals being released into your brain, you’re less likely to worry, stress or lose it with your co-workers. Happy mind, happy life.

Running is proven to: Help You Live Longer

I know this sounds like clickbait, but it’s not… I promise. In fact, scientific studies have shown that regular cardiovascular exercise, such as running, can actually add an extra 1,934 days onto your life. That’s right. Getting into the habit of running regularly won’t just improve your mental health, it can also add an average of 5.3 years onto your life expectancy by improving your mental wellbeing as well your physical health. 

Thanks for reading. For more running insights, inspirations, stories and techniques, follow us on Instagram and Strava -- or simply check out our personalised running plans at Runna.

A runner being hugged by family.

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