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If you feel a runner’s high after logging miles, consider yourself lucky. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, that sensation is actually quite rare. But even if running doesn’t put you into a state of euphoria, there’s a good chance you feel calmer afterward: Studies have shown running and other forms of aerobic exercise have profound abilities to lower anxiety levels.
One fascinating stud by the University of Maryland showed how moderate aerobic exercise may not just help people zen out in the moment, but cope with anxiety and stress for an extended period of time post-workout. The researchers found that participants were less likely to be rattled by emotionally arousing images they were exposed to after they cycled for 30 minutes than when they simply rested.
Running also provides a psychological distraction from stress. According to Dr. John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, one of the ways that exercise lowers anxiety is by activating frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function. This helps control the amygdala, which reacts to threats to our survival whether they are real or imagined.
“When you’re running, you use more brain cells than any other human activity,” he explains, noting that this benefit is enhanced by running outdoors. “If you’re also having to focus, and pay attention to the change in the environment, looking at rocks and all that kind of stuff, that’s even more of a challenge, and a good stress on the brain.”
He notes that another way that running acts to reduce anxiety is by giving us a sense of control in that particular moment in life and, by doing so, allows us to just “be” in the moment.
If you’re running for anxiety, keep running—the research supports it. To enhance the anxiety-treating effects of your daily run, try these four things.
1. Run in Nature
If you can find some green space to stride through, research shows that it can enhance the calming effects of aerobic exercise. Already, there is a trove of research showing that simply being in green spaces can lower stress hormones (like cortisol) and blood pressure. It’s given way to “restoration theory,” which proposes that time spent in nature offers restorative effects.
So it’s no wonder that exercising in nature also has been found to offer therapeutic benefits. One study in 2013 used mobile electroencephalography (EEG) as a method to record and analyze the emotional experience of a group of walkers in three types of urban environments, including a green space setting. Participants took part in a 25-minute walk through three different “zones” of Edinburgh. A shopping area, a path through a green space, and a street in a busy commercial area. When the participants moved into the green zone, the researchers found evidence of lower levels of frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher levels of meditation. “This has implications for promoting urban green space as a mood-enhancing environment for walking or for other forms of physical or reflective activity,” the researchers concluded.
In addition to trail running activating more areas of the brain, Dr. Ratey points out that being outside has anti-inflammatory effects as well that make us less anxious and more ready to fight any infection that may come along.
2. Focus on Moderate Intensity
If you want to increase the release of those endocannabinoids that help you chill out, you don’t want to run too easy or too hard. David Raichlen, PhD, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California, points out that when it comes to exercise, there is an inverted U-shaped curve, with very low and very high levels of intensity not eliciting a change in endocannabinoids.
“What we’ve found is that exercise at moderate intensities increases circulating endocannabinoid levels, and these increases are correlated with improved positive affect following exercise,” explains Raichlen. By “moderate intensity,” he means 70–85% of your maximum heart rate, adjusted for age.
You also might want to incorporate high intensity interval training (HIIT) into your runs. A recent study looked at walking as opposed to HIIT, and found that HIIT was better for anxiety and depression, whereas just walking for a longer period of time was better for cognition and memory.
“If you’re an accomplished runner, you’ll want to work in some sprints,” says Dr. Ratey. “You’ll want to work in 20 to 30 seconds of very intense running. That gives you even more of a boost in certain areas of the brain that have to do with our emotions.”
But, he notes, if you’d rather go at a nice slow pace, don’t worry, you still get calming benefits.
3. Stay Connected
There is strong evidence to support that maintaining strong social networks strengthens resilience to stress and adversity. So if you’re vaccinated or otherwise cool with it, it’s important to get back with your running group or partner. It’s also good just to schedule a chat with a friend after your run.
This is also a good time to tune inward and focus on the intrinsic factors that motivate us to run, outside of any social pressure or competitive events.
“There are certain parts of exercise that we do for other people,” says Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychotherapist. “Once we’re exercising alone we can get rid of that baggage and just be doing what you want to do for you.”
4. Practice Mindfulness
Dr. Ratey says you should also strive to be as present in your run as possible. Before beginning your run, connect with your breath, breathing through your nose deep into your belly. Continue to focus on your breath as you begin your run, bringing yourself into your body (and out of your mind), paying attention to the somatic sensations, sounds, sights, and scents you experience striding along.
“Get into that zone where it starts to seem easy, where you’re just in a state of flow and you’re not really thinking about anything else in the physical moment in which you can relax into the run,” suggests Daramus. “That is associated with a lot of the same benefits to the mind and body as meditation.”