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August 13, 2020 • read

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The mental health benefits of exercise and running

If you’re a runner, you’ve probably heard of the term “runner’s high.” It’s the sought-after feeling after a challenging run. When it happens, a runner feels less physical pain and stress along with a sense of euphoria. 

If you’ve ever questioned whether runner’s high is real — the short answer is yes. But, you don’t have to be a competitive runner to get positive mental effects. There’s science to back the idea that even light exercise can improve mental health and relieve stress. 

Fitness and mental health have a cause and effect relationship. When you exercise regularly, it improves your mental wellbeing. The emotional benefits of running include anxiety and depression relief, and improved self-esteem. 

Conversely, when you don’t get enough exercise, it damages more than your physical body. A sedentary lifestyle contributes to decline in mental function, and the development of Alzheimer’s.

The mental health benefits of running are connected to how exercise impacts the brain itself. Aerobic exercise like running, cycling, or swimming increases blood flow to the brain and the firing of neurotransmitters. This combination starts to rewire the physical structure of the brain. This leads to new connections between nerve cells, helping  keep your memory sharp.

Any time you can dedicate to physical fitness is great. To see the best results when it comes to the mental benefit of physical activity, try building up a routine. Studies show that exercise 3-5 times per week is enough to bring about positive mental effects. 

Exercise kick-starts lots of processes in your body. Many of them keep depression and other mental illnesses at bay. Here’s a look at ways running benefits the brain.

Stress reduction

The emotional benefits of running, like stress reduction, are caused by a flood of endorphins. These naturally occurring chemicals release from your brain’s pituitary gland when you exercise. They help you feel calm and reduce pain.They also play a major role in the feeling of euphoria during runner’s high.

Your body releases endorphins as a reaction to stress. When you’re testing your physical endurance during a run, your heart rate increases and your blood is pumping. These signals tell your brain that your body is under stress, and it releases endorphins to help. Endorphins also trigger an increase in your body’s dopamine production, another “feel good” chemical. Putting careful stress on your body during physical activity helps your mental health.

Sleep improvement

The benefits of exercise on your mental health aren’t limited to your waking hours. You also enjoy the benefits of exercise while you sleep. Because running burns up so much energy, you may find you fall asleep faster. 

Exercise also helps you get deeper sleep. Your sleep cycle has four stages. During stage one and two your eye movement and brain waves start to slow down. During these stages you sleep lightly. Imagine a quick nap. It’s during deep sleep in the third and fourth stages that your body repairs itself. These phases of sleep improve your memory and ability to learn. 

Sleep complications are common side-effects of anxiety and depression. They’re reported together so often that it’s hard to tell which comes first — the mental illness, or the problem with sleep. If you don’t get enough deep sleep your chances of feeling depressed or anxious increase. Getting enough exercise helps you get good sleep, which benefits your long-term mental health.

Depression relief

The psychological benefits of exercise start with your commitment to self care. You feel good about yourself when you follow through with routines, like incorporating exercise into your lifestyle.  When you regularly do things like exercise and running, depression may lessen as your self-esteem improves. 

Running does more to help depression than other common coping mechanisms like food or alcohol. Physical activity is among the healthiest ways to cope with life’s stressors. A study of exercise and depression showed that men and women who exercised saw improvements in symptoms like anger or agitation after 30 minutes. 

Memory boost

The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for memory. One study compared people who exercise with people who don’t, and found the hippocampus in active people to be 2% bigger. 

Especially as you age, how running positively affects the brain long-term becomes more apparent. Cognitive decline is a common issue as we get older. When you exercise cognitive deterioration is slowed down. Exercise helps your brain maintain connections that naturally deteriorate over time, like the ones needed for planning and organizing. This delays the onset of symptoms like poor memory or difficulty concentrating that unfortunately sometimes come with age.

Anxiety remedy

25% of Canadians will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and few people seek the help they need. Jogging for anxiety relief is an example of exercise therapy for mental health. For some people, regular exercise can supplement or replace medications for anxiety relief. Everyone is different, so work closely with your doctor to see how exercise could benefit your anxiety long term.

The psychological effects of exercise are very positive. If you need a quick boost in your mental health, working out can improve your mood in as little as five minutes. If you’re living with mental illness like depression or anxiety, running and other aerobic workouts can help with long-term improvement in symptoms. 

In addition to jogging for anxiety and depression relief, it’s always helpful to talk with someone if you’re not feeling like yourself. It’s easy to connect with our therapists from wherever you are, even the running trail.  


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