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Beyond the Physical: Running Leads to Mental Health Transformations, Too

We might focus too heavily on how running leads some people to weight loss and not enough on how it changes our minds, too.

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Since I formed the nonprofit Still I Run—Runners for Mental Health Awareness, I’ve become keenly aware that the running and fitness industry prefers to focus on the physical benefits of running. I understand that our society emphasizes appearance, body shape, and size. For the fitness and running industry, articles that mention weight loss are popular; often more popular than articles that focus on running for depression or mental health. But does that actually make the hyper-focus on weight loss OK?

I say no. It’s wonderful when people find joy and happiness through running, with a goal of losing weight. I applaud them. But can we also spotlight people whose lives are fundamentally changed because of the mental health benefits of running? Where are those stories? I am much more interested in who you are than what you look like.

As the founder of Still I Run, a nonprofit running community for mental health, I hear on a daily basis about people whose lives have been transformed because of running; who run for depression and anxiety. I wish I could shout from the rooftops about these amazing people. Perhaps I’m so passionate about this because I too am one of those people.

My mental health transformation

In my 20s I was a mess. I didn’t work hard. I took things for granted, made bad decisions, ruined relationships, had no resilience or mental strength. I hated myself. The way I treated my mind and body reflected that. In April 2011, I checked into a mental health hospital to treat my depression and anxiety. There, I learned the importance of managing my illness. For me, treatment includes medication, regular therapy, and running.

I’d never really been a runner before. It was something I did on and off “for funsies.” I found no purpose or passion in it. When I started running for my mental health, I couldn’t do a full mile without stopping several times. It. Was. Hard. I wanted to give up. But the sense of accomplishment I felt when I finished fueled me.

The actual physiological benefits taking place in my brain become more apparent as well. I remember days when I’d struggle to get out of bed and literally the last thing in the world that I’d want to do is run. Still, I’d lace up my shoes and get outside because I was starting to feel this new sense of self-esteem and power after a run. This was no coincidence either. Many studies out there reveal regular exercise can lead to the release of a variety of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Those two chemicals in particular are the ones my brain doesn’t produce enough of. So, for me and many others, running is like the cherry on top of other treatment tools like medication and therapy. I wish I could say my life made a miraculous turn after discovering this mental health toolkit of running, therapy, and medication, but like many transformations, the journey takes time. For me, it took years.

Sasha Wolff, advocate for running for depression, at the end of a race
Photo: Courtesy Sasha Wolff

It wasn’t until 2016 that I finally felt like my life was turning a corner. From 2011 to 2016, I had more confidence and resilience. By January of 2016, I had two marathons, 10 half marathons, and countless 5K races under my belt. Each mile I trained, and every finish line I crossed, made me believe in myself even more.

For those of us in the running world, it seems like everyone runs. But the truth is, in 2019, running event participation across the world was only 8 million people, out of 7.6 billion. So, the fact that I can deal with a sometimes debilitating mental illness, and do something hard (like running) on a regular basis, is a big deal. It gives me a sense of true strength. It’s made me a better wife, mother, employee, and friend.

Today, while I am admittedly overworked, I have a wonderful full-time job, lead a nonprofit organization, am a parent to a 3- year-old and 1-year-old, and have another child on the way. I run every day, have a happy marriage, and a wonderful life. I have no doubt that the purpose and inner strength I’ve gained from running has made this possible. It also helped save my life.

Body positivity AND mental health positivity

Not all articles about the body are bad. I’m happy to see some of those weight-loss articles turning into ones about body positivity. Individuals like Mirna Valerio and Latoya Shauntay Snell have been a driving force in embracing runners of all sizes.

I love this shift and want to see more of it. Many people, including myself, have been inspired by runners of all shapes and sizes. Thanks to body positivity influencers, I’ve learned that you don’t need to have a “runner’s body” (what is that anyway?) to run and be healthy. Now, let’s add some mental health positivity runners to the mix. Many stories out there about running for depression, anxiety, and other disorders will not only inspire, but help get rid of the stigma around mental illness.

That stigma has devastating consequences. It leads to discrimination, internalized shame, worsening symptoms, hesitancy to get proper care…the list goes on. In my role with Still I Run, I talk about mental health awareness as something we must continue to spread. We must normalize the conversation around mental health within the context of running.

I urge the fitness and running industry to help turn the tide against the stigma. In addition to focusing on the physical benefits of running, let’s also focus on the mental health benefits and personal transformation movement brings. Prepare to be amazed by the mental health warriors in our midst.