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Heartbreak hurts. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, broken up with your S.O., or even lost your job, grieving is essential, and everyone has their own unique way of making it through the pain. And yes, that pain is real.
According to a 2010 study at Rutgers University, rejection activates the same areas of the brain as actual physical pain. Turning to ice cream and cocktails may be satisfying for the short term, but they aren’t a long-term answer. Getting physical, as in running, is a healthier coping tool. Not only does running stimulate brain chemicals that fight physical pain, its blood-pumping, stress-relieving, mood- and brain-boosting benefits—the very things that make exercise good for you in general—make it especially valuable when suffering emotionally and mentally.
Marathoner, ultra marathoner, New York City running evangelist and all-around fitness phenom Robin Arzon registered for her first marathon in 2010 to recover from a breakup.
“Owning my space in the world through running repaired my broken heart,” says Arzon, who is now engaged. In fact, she calls running “one of the greatest bonds” with her fiancé, who proposed to her after they crossed the finish line of the 2016 Philadelphia Marathon.
Much of the reason running helps can be traced to endorphins—feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression, provide pain relief and are responsible for the “runner’s high”—released during a run. Ditto for dopamine, another neurotransmitter released during periods of intense cardiovascular activity that has been shown to help counter mental dark clouds. According to a recent study from the Journal of Neuroscience, movement also increases the brain’s GABA neurotransmitters, which help to control anxiety and fear.
Exercise is a proven self-esteem booster. For an even greater sense of accomplishment, set some goals—attainable ones and stretch ones. Be it running around the block or registering and training for a marathon, striving for and meeting goals will make you feel like a rock star. Once you’re run through your thoughts and emotions, consider running with a friend or joining a running group. Both are ideal ways to connect with others, a proven mood enhancer.
Want to sleep better and reduce stress? Again, running is the answer. The general health benefits of sweating it out are a given for long-term wellness. Running can also help with how you think.
Based on a recent study from the University of Arizona that looked at male, cross country runners age 18–25, running helped improve brain connectivity, thought patterns and decision-making—something that’s often compromised when you are upset. The improvement comes from running’s repetitive motions and the complex cognitive functions that accompany it. When running, you are constantly monitoring your surroundings, traffic, how you feel and more. Those thoughts force you to be in the moment, providing a temporary break from dwelling on your loss.
Running may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re in the throes of a broken heart, but science and experience say it’s exactly what you need. So take a deep breath, lace up and hit the road (or a trail). Do it again and again and consider even training for a race. The long-term engagement will work wonders for you and your heart.