The benefits of running on a regular basis are many but they aren’t just physical, there are also benefits from running for mental health.
Repeated studies have shown a link between regular exercise and the reduction of stress and anxiety in endurance related physical activity. In this article we take a look at some of the mental benefits that taking a run can give you.
Since the start of the COVID pandemic there has never been a more important time to do our best to be both active and fit, physically and mentally.
A reduction in levels of Cortisol and Epinephrine (Stress Hormones)
Everyday life can at times become stressful, the body has a hormonal response mechanism called fight or flight that kicks in when we perceive a threat to our wellbeing. In the past it was dangerous animals or situations that initiated the response, nowadays it tends to be deadlines and busy schedules that initiate the fight or flight response. Our bodies are carrying increased stress hormone levels that don’t get reduced by the run to safety away from the sabre-toothed tiger!
A build up in cortisol and epinephrine levels throughout the body, lead to increased anxiety levels or depression, sleep problems and memory impairment. The good news though is that the body can flush these increased cortisol levels out via exercise. A regular run has been proven to lower stress hormones and return the body to a more balanced state.
A decrease in anxiety levels
This goes hand in hand with the above area, if we carry more epinephrine and cortisol levels in our blood supply then it is easier to start manifesting increased anxiety levels which can lead to some or all of the following symptoms:
Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
Cold or sweaty hands or feet
Shortness of breath
Not being able to be still and calm
Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
Obviously some of these symptoms can also impact on your ability to run (for example problems sleeping and muscle tension). A study undertaken in 2014 showed an increase in sports injury rates amongst adolescent school goers who had less than 8 hours of sleep each night. While it isn’t a study on adults, it does prove there is a link between poor sleep quality and increased injury rates. Muscle tension is also one of the key factors that lead to injury, a muscle that is tight alters the way a joint functions and this can lead to increased wear and tear on the joint surfaces, or excessive strain in the muscle itself when asked to work during running. It’s a vicious circle because if you can’t run due to injury then anxiety levels could potentially increase.
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers that are produced during times of stress and during intense or long bouts of exercise. The endorphin release plays a role in what is known as ‘runner’s high’ a euphoric feeling after an intense bout of exercise. The effect differs from person to person and in increasing or decreasing amounts. If you experience it, it can leave you feeling incredibly positive and can help alleviate stress. However, some scientists have suggested that the effect can become addictive and if you are experiencing it on a regular basis when you are resting it can leave you feeling jittery and anxious to get back out exercising i.e. can increase your resting stress levels.
Improved Cognitive Function
Stress can also cause the brain to atrophy (degrade) which in turn can lead to side effects such as memory loss. Studies have shown that exercise can reverse that process by promoting the production of brain hormones (such as norepinephrine) which is associated with increased cognitive function and improved mood.
The knock on effect of a bout of exercise is that the body then needs to rest in order to make repairs to your muscles so that you can repeat your activity on another day. A longer or more intense bout of exercise requires a longer rest period and subsequently your sleep will be longer, deeper and more effective. Sleep is also another opportunity for the body to remove cortisol from the body, subsequently lowering stress levels.
Running is repetitive in nature and just like the tick-tock of the clock, the constantly bubbling stream or a light wind rustling the leaves of a tree the act of running itself and the repetition of one foot in front of the other over and over can have a calming influence on the mind, it brings order into a sometimes chaotic life. When combined with a well known simple route at a consistent time in the day it can become your thinking time, giving you an opportunity to subconsciously reflect on your life and bring order to your thoughts.
There are numerous reasons why running can benefit you physically, but next time you’re out for a run ask yourself if you are running to lose weight or improve fitness or whether that is the side effect and the real reason is because of the sense of achievement/empowerment/satisfaction or even euphoria that it gives you.
Enjoy your running