One of the most underrated conversations that we as people could have is the effects of how our running or how our exercise affects our mental lives. We like to focus on the physical and say I want to get faster, I want to be better, I want to run a new PR. But we don’t necessarily think about the interlink between the mind and the body. And that’s something I love to do here on this channel.
Now, you’re here, you clicked on this video because you want to know about anxiety and running and can it help -- how soon can it help? Well, I’m Jesse Funk and on today’s episode of Runner’s High, we’re going to talk about the link between running and anxiety, how soon it can help, and what you should do in the long term.
First, if you haven’t been with me here on the channel before, I’m Jesse Funk. This show is called Runner’s High. You want to hit that subscribe button and possibly the bell as well to get notified when new episodes come out. Runner’s High episodes come out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as my other shows, the Smart Athlete Podcast on Fridays, where I interview experts and athletes in all kinds of different fields. It is a wild grab bag, but it’s a very interesting show to shoot, and hopefully, to watch.
Now, let’s talk about running and anxiety. That’s why you’re here, right? You want to know does running have an effect? When can it have an effect? How is it going to help me? Now, I think all of us deal with anxiety to a greater or lesser degree at some point in our lives, and probably a series of points in our lives no matter who you are. Now, you may be here because you’re dealing with anxiety more as a condition than a simple state of being for a period of time.
Whatever the reason that you’re here, know that yes, I can say with near 100% certainty that running can help anxiety. And the effects can be near immediate. This is because of the runner’s high effect. Hence why we talk about Runner’s High, this show, is such a big thing in running, such an important thing in running that it was worth naming the show after it.
Runner’s high is a thing that happens inside your brain after you’ve been running typically, for more than 30 minutes. Now, sometimes it can be shorter than that through a very hard effort. I know it was much more common to experience for me in high school after races and these races wouldn’t be 30 minutes long. But it’s a very intense effort. It didn’t happen every single time.
But when we look at studies trying to replicate the runner’s high, this is often going to be after 30 minutes of work. So, you do have to go out and be out for a little while for this to happen. Now, the runner’s high effect is actually a change in chemicals in your brain. These neurotransmitters referred to as
Now, if you’ve been running for a while, you may not get it as much. But that’s only because you’ve simply been a little dull to the experience. Now, this experience of runner’s high also has the effect of helping to reduce anxiety, at least in the short term. And that’s kind of the rub, right, is that we can’t simply go out and run for hours and hours and hours, we would get exhausted. But to that point, if this is what you’re seeking, don’t try to just go out really hard and exhaust yourself.
Because that’s a less reliable way to get this runner’s high effect than simply taking your time, going slow and running for a while, instead of running simply hard and then getting tired quickly. What my coach says with me when we go out and long runs is let the duration of the run tire you out, not the effort. And that same kind of advice applies to you here if you’re trying to achieve that kind of runner’s high effect. Let the duration of your run, that half-hour, 40 minutes, whatever you’re going to go out for, let that tire you out, not how hard you’re going.
Anytime I look up studies that have to do with the mind, depression, anxiety, and running, there’s often a positive link between being active, going out and running and seeing positive outcomes with depression and anxiety in the long term. But that’s also in conjunction with medication and some kind of therapy most of the time when these studies are done. The one I like to bring up is a study that broke it into several different groups and said one group is just going to run, one group is just going to be medicated, and one group is going to do both.
Now, we do Have a control group in this study, so that’s kind of a flaw in what we’re working on. But from those three groups even though we didn’t have a control, so not a perfect study, we did see that the most positive effect in the long term was a group that had the combination, the medication and the exercise.
Exercise, interestingly, did provide short-term results very similar to the medication, but long term didn’t provide as many benefits. So, know that depression and anxiety are a complicated situation for a lot of people. And if it is something that you’re dealing with and you need help with, seeking a professional to help you with that is the way to go if you want to be rid of that, and deal with that in the long term to try to find the true self that you want to be. Running can help you for sure, but know that it may not be the only thing that is going to be what helps you get to the place where you want to be.
I’ve talked about this with several guests over the years doing the Smart Athlete podcast, originally, with one of my guests, Mike Haggadone who’s an ultra runner. We talked about how running is not therapy. It is therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. They’re two different things. He dealt with depression and anxiety and he spends all this time running and even finds within the community that there are other people that deal with these things. But you often need some other stimulus, some other way to deal with it as well, to get the most positive benefit.
I talked to other people, I can’t remember whether I brought it up with Jenna Fuchs, who’s a sports psychologist. I spoke with her season two of the podcast. I will link to both Mike and Jenna if you want to be interested in checking out those at the end of this video, check out those interviews. But know that yes, there’s a positive benefit between running and anxiety, that it can be beneficial.
The other thing besides just the running component that is probably interesting is if we get outside and run. Because we know, we’ve seen studies come out that say spending time in green space has a positive benefit to our overall mood and reducing that kind of anxious emotive state. So, being outside and running, probably going to be more beneficial than simply getting on a treadmill.
That isn’t always the best way to go about it if it’s 15 degrees outside Fahrenheit, it’s snowing, snow’s four feet deep, probably not the best time to run outside, you’re not going to get the benefits of green space. But if you have the ability to get outside, then it is probably going to be also beneficial because you’re simply outside.
All of this is really my long-winded way to say, yes, running can have positive and immediate benefits to dealing with anxiety. So can being outside when you can get into green space, be surrounded by trees, there’s grass, there’s flowers, maybe bees are buzzing around.
Hopefully, you’re not anxious about bees. But these have positive benefits. However, going back to those studies, because we want to trust these studies that have been done, been peer-reviewed, and then published, medication cannot be substituted if that’s something that you need. Again, if anxiety is not a condition you’re experiencing, it is simply a passing state of being, then that may not be for you.
I simply cannot speak to that because here I am with the camera. I’m not with you. I’m not qualified to diagnose you. But know that whatever your case is, you are going to be able to get a positive benefit out of running to deal with anxiety. So, if you want to check out my interviews with Mike, who himself dealt with depression and is an ultra runner, click on that, that should be on the screen. Or if you want to know about sports psychology, with my interview with Jenna Fuchs, that’ll be on the screen as well. As always, I’ll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.