After spending any amount of time with either the fitness community or the mental health community, everyone has likely heard that exercise can improve mental health. More specifically, running is a common recommendation for people who want to improve their mental health through fitness. Running is a common suggestion for people battling anxiety, depression, stress, and many other concerns. Why is this and is this claim true?
Does Running Actually Improve Mental Health?
Just like with everything, the answer to this question is complicated. It truly depends on the person running and their mental health condition. For some mental health conditions, they require counseling and possibly medication. However, for some people, running is exactly what they need to feel amazing each day. Because running is great for most people, it’s worth a try when attempting to improve your mental state.
Who Should Use Running as a Coping Technique?
For the most part, running is an excellent technique for coping with mental health concerns. When used in combination with therapy and possibly medication, the runner can experience life to the fullest. So, what are the mental health conditions that benefit most from running, and what does the evidence say?
Insomniacs or Those Dealing With Other Sleep Disorders
Insomnia, or the inability to sleep when desired or when tired, could be lessened with running. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports exercise can help insomniacs get better sleep, as well as make them fall asleep more quickly. However, they make note that running should be done at least one hour before bedtime. This is due to the endorphins the body creates when doing aerobic exercises. But, after one to two hours, these endorphins ware off, allowing the body to fall asleep more easily.
Running, and exercise in general, can also prevent insomnia later in life. The Sleep Foundation reports those who are more physically active are less likely to experience insomnia down the road. This means that running and other forms of exercise are protective functions for the body against insomnia. So, if you struggle with not getting enough sleep, or if you are afraid you will experience insomnia in the future, consider running a few times per week.
Those Dealing with Anxiety
Dr. Dan Brennan reports in a WebMD article that running can help reduce anxiety by lifting the runner’s mood. Running causes an increase in blood circulation, which can help improve the runner’s reaction to stress. Additionally, running can also produce endocannabinoids, which creates the famous “runner’s high.” This is the euphoric feeling that many people get while running. The “runner’s high” is often the driving motivation behind running for improved mental health.
It’s also important to note that running can help be a distraction for those with anxiety. Being able to focus on something other than what’s provoking anxiety can be incredibly relieving for the runner. Taking 20 to 60 minutes to just focus on something else is a great coping skill for runners. It can also feel as though they are “running away from their anxieties,” which is a great mindset shift.
People with Depression
According the WebMD, running is excellent for mild to moderate depression. Similarly to the reason it helps with anxiety, running can boost the mood of the runner, which can minimize feelings of depression. Additionally, it can help boost self-esteem as the runner accomplishes their goals and improves their running speed.
However, depression is an incredibly serious mental health concern. Moderate to severe depression should always be monitored by a licensed mental health professional. Running is not 100% effective in eliminating depression, and it certainly is not a cure for suicidal thoughts. Those with any level of depression should not rely on running alone, but rather use it as a supplement to their mental health care.
Who Shouldn’t Use Running as a Coping Technique?
There are very specific groups of people who should not use running to benefit their mental health. This is because it can cause more harm than good for these people. But these groups are not the only ones running can be damaging to. If you are concerned running will be hurtful for your mental health, find another form of physical activity.
Those with Eating Disorders or Disorderly Tendencies
Running and other forms of exercise can become harmful for people with certain eating disorders. It can become a method of punishment, or a method of eliminating calories from the body. So, for those who have not completely recovered from their eating disorders, running is not recommended. Instead, it’s best to contact a licensed counselor who specializes in eating disorder recovery.
Those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Patients with OCD can, at times, become obsessive towards exercise. It can become a compulsion, just like with most things for OCD patients. So, the person running could feel as though they must run so nothing bad will happen to them. Or, they may create a rule so they must run a certain number of miles each day. By no means will every person with OCD experience these symptoms. However, it’s something to be aware of if you or a loved one has OCD. It’s crucial that it does not become a compulsive act, but is used for good.
Ready to Try Running?
When it comes to running, it’s best to try it out. You never know if it will be exactly what you need to eliminate the stress or anxiety you feel from your everyday responsibilities. Just trying it a few times will give you a great idea of whether or not it is helpful for your mental health. Lastly, remember to contact a licensed therapist if physical exercise and other coping techniques are not helping your mental health.
This post was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.