Can Running Improve Mental Health?

We know that running has plenty of physical benefits, that maybe is why you hang out with me here on this channel and watch episodes of this show Runner’s High. But you may not know, and I talk about this a lot in various capacities, that there are mental changes that happen.
Can Running Improve Mental Health?

We know that running has plenty of physical benefits, that maybe is why you hang out with me here on this channel and watch episodes of this show Runner’s High. But you may not know, and I talk about this a lot in various capacities, that there are mental changes that happen.

And I don't just mean mindset changes, there are potential things that can help elevate our mental health. So, if you're just looking for a quick answer to that question in the title, then you've already got it. But if you want to talk more about how running can affect our mental health, how it can affect it positively, then stay tuned for this episode of Runner's High

Before we get going, as per usual, hit that subscribe button. If you haven't stuck around with me here on the channel, I do lots of running videos on a wide variety of topics, not just how to be the fastest runner you can be, but all the little nitty-gritty things that you don't necessarily talk about with your friends, maybe embarrassing things, that's what I specialize in. So, hang out with me here on the channel, hit that subscribe button.

Okay, onto our topic. And another caveat, if you don't mind me doing that today. The caveat here being that I, like many people, studied psychology as an undergrad, but I did not go on to do my masters in counseling like I had intended originally, life led me down another path. That is all to say, I am not a licensed clinical social worker, I am not a licensed clinician, counselor, anything of the sort.

So, the advice, the ideas in this are purely my research and are presented for entertainment purposes, I guess we'll say. They’re my opinion from what I can find and don't represent actual diagnoses for you. So, always refer to a licensed professional, but feel free to hang out with me as a starting point.

Really on the basis of it, running and its physical benefits have a lot to do with how it affects us mentally. And that is in large part because we have to learn to cope with challenges when we are running. Now, this comes in various forms, right? It comes in the form of, “Hey, I want to get faster
So, what do I have to do?”

It depends on where you are in your journey and what you actually have to do, whether that means running more miles, or if you need to start going faster, doing interval work, whatever it is. As I often say and as many of my guests on the smart athlete podcast often say, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
And that's really just a way to say you're okay taking on challenges that take you outside of your comfort zone. This skill that you learn through running, running specifically, can be taken and go to other things.

What this means is not only can you move in a more positive direction because you have these skills and the ability to be uncomfortable, but you're more resilient when you face challenges. If your mind is not strong and you're not able to overcome these challenges and resist fatigue, as a coach often told me, the job of running is to resist fatigue. If you are not able to resist fatigue mentally, then life becomes more burdensome. When you are able to deal with these challenges and wave them off, then our whole kind of mood improves.

This is obviously not on the clinical side, but just an experiential thing where we know we’re able to deal with these things, that it becomes a bigger deal that we see a larger picture about what's going on in our lives. And we're not worried about, “Oh, I ran out of milk” or “I spilled the milk on the floor.”

As the saying goes, there's no use crying over spilled milk. Although who of us is drinking milk anymore? I guess if you're drinking milk leave it in the comments, but who drinks milk? Anyway, point being there's these basic skills that we learn when we're running that help us be more resilient in our everyday lives and that improves our overall mental health.

Now, this shouldn't be confused with saying that running is a therapy. I talked about this originally all the way back on episode 32 of the smart athlete podcast with Mike Hagadorn. We talked about, is running therapy or is it therapeutic? And it's something that Mike brought up as I was researching him. So, I asked him about it and it's a very interesting distinction to make, right? Is it therapy or is it therapeutic?

Maybe we're splitting hairs, but I think when we're talking about mental health it's important to do that and make distinct definitions. I think there are a lot of clinicians, obviously I’m kind of speaking for them at this moment, and somebody will probably contradict me, but I think there are plenty of clinicians who would say exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, has benefits for your mental health.

But often it is not a cure if you are clinically depressed or you have a clinical case of anxiety, or some diagnosable condition we might find in the . Those kinds of things have to be addressed by other methods that the people in those fields, the clinicians, the counselors, that they specialize in treating.

So, I often recommend running as an addition to anything else you might be doing, but it is not a cure. And that's something that Mike and I talk about because Mike himself, even though he's an ultra runner, you'd think he's highly productive, right? Well, Mike himself went through a pretty deep, severe bout of depression and went through a very rough time in his life where people would kind of say, “well, doesn't running help? Isn't running this better thing?” Or he would hear from other runners, “running is my therapy.”

And that's a little disheartening for somebody dealing with such a, what can be, debilitating condition. So, that's another reason I think it's important that we split hairs here and we say it is there a pubic, but it is not therapy. Because we have to realize that even though you and I, maybe aren't experiencing depression, that the people that do, it can be a catastrophic scenario, it can derail everything that those people are trying to do.

And even though your intentions, my intentions, may be good by saying, “Hey, isn't running therapy? Isn't running make you feel good?” That isn't necessarily helpful when what they need is something else to help them get through that period. Now, beyond my diatribe here, there are actually other physical-mental connection kind of benefits that running bring to improving your mental health.

Now, we get the basics that we see all over the places, stress relief, releasing endorphins, which are a neurotransmitter in our brain that make us feel good. Like when we eat cheesecake, you usually get endorphins when you get treats like that, anything you might consider a treat makes you feel good endorphins are probably being released. So, we get those kinds of things from running as well.

But beyond that, two other things that are important to note, there's some research that indicates that running has the potential to change our brain in a physical way by changing the connections in our brain so that we have more working memory, and that's basically like upgrading your computer, upgrading the Ram in your computer so that it can do more tasks.

And I would argue, generally speaking, when we're thinking about our brains we want them to be working at peak efficiency, right? So, running has the potential to do that. Now, we obviously need more research than one study, but it is a good indication that there is probably some physical change that's going on there.
The last thing to think about is that the same thing that helps us be good runners, helps us be good and comfortable in everyday life, and that is our aerobic capacity.

You may not notice if you've been running for a while, you may have forgotten what it was like before you started running, where everyday life going upstairs, going to up hills, walking a lot, some of those things can become a struggle over time. If you're sedentary, if you sit around and don't do anything, then your muscles atrophy, you become weaker.

And then everyday tasks become harder. Can you still perform them? Sure, you can still perform them. But if you run, your aerobic capacity increases. There are extreme examples, obviously, when people become very out of shape and even getting up off the couch, just standing up is a problem, and that becomes winding, some people they're out of breath and they simply stand up.

So, don't take those little things for granted, that increased physical capacity, the increased aerobic capacity that we have as runners does improve our mental health. Because if you think about the opposite of where you and I are as runners in the place where it's difficult to do everything all day, think about how that's going to negatively affect your mental health, where everything becomes a struggle.
It's not just when we go out the door to go run, it's getting up, going upstairs to get this thing, going back downstairs. You know, all the little things that we take for granted become a drag, a big weight on the day. So, that is one of the other ways that all of our running, all the time we put in positively affects our mental health.
As a last note before I let you go know that if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, anything like that, know that you're not alone, it does affect everybody across the spectrum from amateur runners to elite runners, and there are plenty of people who have said, “Hey, this is something I deal with.”

So, know that you can find help through somebody who is a licensed clinician, licensed to help you. There is help out for you there, and you can get to a better place in your life past that point. It will take a little work, a little honesty on your part to find that help. But I am positive that we can find that help for you. So, if you have any questions for me, leave them down in the comments below, and I'll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.

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