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It’s no longer news that running and other forms of exercise can have an effect on mental health. The mood-boosting effects get to work right away after a bout of exercise, but also linger around for the long run.
“Exercise can reduce our distress in the immediate–like one episode. But, if we are exercising regularly, it’s one of the few factors that can reduce our vulnerability to intense emotion,” says Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with Gatewell Therapy Center.
The data correlating the mental health benefits to physical activity just keep stacking up.
The Research on Running and Mental Health
Recently, a 2022 study published in Current Psychology found that workers participating in a 50-day 10,000 steps per day program reported feeling less anxious, less stressed, slept better (which can help one cope with stressors better), and felt an improvement in overall wellbeing.
But exercise doesn’t have to equate to 10,000 steps for it to provide a benefit. A meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychology found that even half the recommended volume of exercise lowered the risk of depression by 18 percent. As for adults who did hit the recommended volume of 2.5 hours per week? They had a 25 percent lower risk.
Some research is starting to dial into which types of exercise are best for improving mental health (this study found walking and running outdoors, cycling, and team sports, did the trick best) and the best environment to do it in (like this literature analysis that compared exercising outdoors in green spaces versus outdoor urban environments. Spoiler: nature won out in terms of reducing anxiety, feelings of anger, and fatigue).
Beyond anecdotal reporting, research also shows a chemical response to exercise. Like a reduction in the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine after physical exercise, even though you’re putting your body through physical stress.
According to the American Psychological Association, there’s little evidence that your body is flooded with endorphins, as many people think happens with running. Instead, research shows that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine shows up in greater concentrations post-exercise. Norepinephrine can increase your focus, help maintain blood pressure when you are stressed, and also affect your mood, memory, and sleep cycle. So you can see how instances of anxiety, depression, memory problems, and even ADHD can be linked to low-levels of norepinephrine according to Cleveland Clinic.
We cannot overlook the auxiliary benefits of exercise on mental health. Even the authors of the Current Psychology study note that it’s possible that the mental health improvements from the daily step challenge could be associated with socialization related to the exercise program, changes in the workplace culture because of the program, or “any number of other factors.”
Rosenfeld points to other potential explanations for why exercise is so beneficial, including distraction from other stressors, mastering a new skill, spending more time outdoors, increased social contact, or even the music people listen to when they exercise.
If you’re reading this and thinking–I already know that running is essential to my mental wellbeing, then the real question may be: How do I add movement back into my life in a healthy way, when I’m struggling with my mental health?
HOW TO MOVE THROUGH TOUGH TIMES
What works best in managing the symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health disorders varies from person to person. While there is a strong correlation between regular movement and positive mental wellbeing, physical activity might not have the same effect on everyone. And it’s certainly not a cure, nor should it be used to replace professional health.
But for Sasha Wolff, founder of Still I Run, running is a very important part of her mental health “toolkit,” alongside medication and therapy.
Wolff has a recurrent depressive disorder and has found the positive habit of running to help keep her symptoms at bay. And she’s seen it help the now thousands of other runners in the Still I Run community in one way or another.
“Everybody is different,” she says.
And what motivates a person to exercise also varies. Here are some things to try if you want to kickstart your body and your mind.
While the research is there, creating a habit out of movement can be a lot of pressure. Or for runners who haven’t had the motivation to do so, feelings of guilt can arise.
That’s why some mental health experts are recommending intuitive exercise more and more. This prescription for movement feels more freeing than another checkbox on the to-do list.
Like intuitive eating, intuitive exercise is a practice that encourages really listening to what your body needs in the moment. Need to sweat it out? Go for it. Need to lean into the walk/run? Yes, ma’am. Need to hula hoop around the home office? We won’t stop you.
There are no wrong answers and no structured training plans in intuitive exercise. In order to make it work for you, though, you need to be in tune with your needs and open to responding to those needs.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times people get pretty rigid with exercise,” says Rosenfeld. Instead of trying to run the same distance each day or week, remember that it’s OK to deviate and do what your body needs instead. “Increased flexibility and reduced expectations, I think can go a long way.”
Intuitive exercise is not just an in-the-moment feeling, though. As Rosenfeld explains, you might not want to exercise first thing in the morning, but your intuition kicks in to remind you that you will be glad you did. “It doesn’t always feel intuitive each moment, but there might be intuition at some part in the process,” she says.
It could also mean putting your running shoes on the shelf for the time being. “A lot of times runners have a lot of expectations of themselves,” says Rosenfeld. “It doesn’t help when you’re in distress.”
What other physical activity can you try that will impose less pressure on yourself? And remember, off seasons from running can boost your performance in the long run, so don’t get discouraged and feel like you’re losing fitness by taking a break.
“Whatever we’re able to sustain over time, to keep saying yes to week after week. is going to have the most impact. If it’s too hard, or it doesn’t fit on our schedule, or you know, the gym is too far away, or whatever it is, we’re not going to keep doing it. And then we’re going to lose whatever benefits were part of it,” says Rosenfeld.
Go through the motions.
Intuitive exercise, though helpful in many ways, can be challenging when physical activity is absolutely not what you want to do, period, when you’re in a depressive state.
That’s where a skill known as opposite action comes into play. “Your depression wants you to avoid, to sleep, to isolate,” says Rosenfeld. “And so the trick is to do the opposite of that. And, you know, in many ways, exercise is the opposite of that.”
Wolff knows personally how hard it can be to get out and run when you’re in a valley of depression–even when she knows that it will help. She suggests starting small by putting on your running clothes or activewear. That way if the mood does strike, you’re ready to lean in. Wolff can usually convince herself to at least get out for a walk.
“If I’m feeling good while I’m out there, I have all my clothes on, I have my right shoes on, and I can go for a run if I choose to,” she says. And if the walk doesn’t turn into a run, the walk itself provides its own mental health boost.
Ask for accountability.
From a spouse, friend, mental health professional, or anyone else you can trust. “That person for me is my husband,” says Wolff. “He will go out on walks with me if I absolutely need to.”
The Still I Run community is also there for that reason. “We have online, a private Facebook group, and I or others who are dealing with intense depression at the moment will post on there and say what they’re going through and that they need some encouragement. The community literally rallies around this person and says, ‘You know, I’m going to go outside and I’m going to do a mile for you.’ And just knowing someone virtually somewhere in the United States is running for you at the same time, that just really helps,” she says.
Practice compassion for yourself.
Remember, running is hard. That’s not meant to sound discouraging. It’s a point that Wolff uses to destigmatize mental illness. “The fact that we can have depression, or anxiety, PTSD, these really hard mental illnesses at times, and still get out there and run–that’s incredible.”
Which is why you should try not to get too discouraged if you’re not hitting all your goals. As Wolff says: “Forward is a pace.” On the bad days, whether mentally or physically, try to remind yourself that the good days are just ahead.
Need more help? Check out the following resources.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline – Dial 988
988 has been designated the new three-digit dialing code to route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the number for free and confidential emotional support, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Beyond the community support, Still I Run has a robust mental health resource page, including resources specific to BIPOC people, veterans, children, how to find low-cost treatment, insurance Q&As, and more.
If you have an interest in pursuing running for your mental health, but have barriers preventing you from doing so, consider applying for the Still I Run Starting Line Scholarship. The scholarship has helped runners access coaches, race entries, running gear and shoes, as well as specific individual needs.
This non-profit trail running group helps runners get access to free counseling, while also using running to advocate for mental health. Fill out their form to apply.