We all know that exercise, like running, is amazing for physical health. But how many of us know about the incredible mental health benefits of exercise? In this quick post, we look at 5 mental health benefits of exercise through the life changing vehicle of running.
1. Running encourages the production of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain
Ever not wanted to start a run due to a lack of motivation, yet within five minutes of starting you literally feel a huge sense of happiness and euphoria? This overall sense of positivity and wellbeing can be attributed to exercise increasing the production of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain.
Exercise boosts the bodies production of endorphins. These are hormones that reduce the amount of stress (by reducing cortisol levels), help you relax, allow you to feel more pleasure and cause you to feel less pain.
Running also generates more dopamine and serotonin which are the chemicals responsible for making you feel a sense of pleasure and happiness.
Sadly, many in society think the best way of producing more of these feel-good neurotransmitters is by consuming alcohol and drugs. These substances are poisonous and harmful to the body.
Considering running is a free, safe, and convenient alternative to producing these feel-good hormones, why not run to boost your mental health? It’s a no-brainer (pun intended).
2. The social aspect of running with others is amazing for mental health
Us humans are social beings. We enjoy interacting with others, whether that’s our close relations or brand-new people.
There have been many studies that show a clear link between maintaining regular social contact and improvements in mental (and physical) health and wellbeing.
The beautiful thing about running is that it can be done with others and your options to socialize whilst working out are vast.
You could join a running club, start a running group with friends, join a local weekly parkrun, participate in an event like a half-marathon, create a fundraising team for a particular challenge.
When it comes to socializing whilst running, you can be as creative as you like. The amazing thing is that your mental health will benefit from socializing too.
3. Running builds self-esteem
It’s often said that there’s a clear link between exercising (running being a great example) and self-esteem. This link states that the more often we exercise, the more likely we are to have high self-esteem.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. What actually is ‘self-esteem?’
According to the National Health Services (NHS) in England, ‘self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves.’
When we have healthy self-esteem, we tend to feel positive about ourselves and about life in general.
It makes us better able to deal with life’s ups and downs. When our self-esteem is low, we tend to see ourselves and our life in a more negative and critical light. We feel less able to take on the challenges that life throws at us.’
Okay, so low self-esteem is clearly bad for us and hinders us progressing in life. How do we fix low self-esteem?
The NHS say the best way to restore self-esteem is to identify the negative beliefs you have about yourself and challenge them. I believe running can help to address negative beliefs some of us sadly have about ourselves.
For example, if you believe that you are fat, lazy and physically unfit, there’s a good chance that you feel bad about yourself. Ask any parent what they want for their baby when they grow up and none of these words would be in their description of a perfect future for their little one.
To change such negative beliefs and improve overall self-esteem, running can play a huge role. Say you start running twice a week, you’ll start to feel that you aren’t lazy. After all, would a lazy person run? Probably not.
After you’ve been running consistently for a few weeks, you’ll have lost some weight (healthy diet pending) and you will notice markable improvements in your physical fitness. Soon, you’ll start to believe that you are of a good weight with a decent level of physical fitness.
And, voila. Thanks to taking the decision to make running a priority, you’ve changed your opinion of yourself from being one of self-loathing and negativity to one of self-respect.
Running can do wonders for improving your self-esteem which is a crucial element in anyone’s mental health.
4. Exercise makes you more likely to have a ‘good mental health day’
‘Good mental health days’ are those where we feel positive about life. We have a positive outlook, want to engage with those around us and are excited by life in general.
On the contrary, ‘bad mental health days’ are the days we really wish that we wouldn’t have. They’re characterized by a feeling of sluggishness, not wanting to speak to people and a general low mood.
Most normal people’s goal would be to avoid having as many of these bad mental health days as possible and increase the likelihood of having good mental health days. It turns out, running is a brilliant way to increase the likelihood of having more positive mental health days and staving off low mood and the blues.
A study by JAMA Psychiatry found that running for just 15 minutes a day reduces the risk of major depression by as much as 26%. That’s a huge reduction in the risk of developing a harmful mental health problem.
If you’re currently not getting in 15 minutes a day of strenuous exercise, like running, it would be worth trying to cultivate this habit.
15 minutes a day really isn’t much time in the grand scheme of things. After all, how many of us spend an hour or more a day mindlessly scrolling through social media?
5. Running improves your cognitive function
Have you ever found it difficult to concentrate, tough to stop being distracted and like you’ll never be able to focus on the task at hand?
What if you could remove these problems and improve your cognitive ability? Imagine the studying you’ll be able to do, the work projects you’ll complete and the information you’ll be able to gain from learning. It turns out that running regularly can contribute to increased cognitive function.
In this video, Ben Martynoga, a British neuroscientist, says that a few recent studies have showed that after a run people were much better able to control their attention, avoid distraction and switch between tasks.
He then goes on to say that another study showed that brain scans of runners compared to non-runners. In this study, the scientists they found that there were functional differences in the parts of the brain involved in executive function (e.g. operating attention, focusing).
Why is it that we can focus more when we’ve got some exercise? The answer lies in the levels of a neurotransmitter we have in the brain called ‘norepinephrine’ which exercise encourages the production of.
Norepinephrine is the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating our attention and focus. When we’re finding it tough to concentrate and stay focused on one task, it’s likely because our levels of norepinephrine are low.
Running can also contribute to improvements in learning and memory abilities. This is because of a protein called ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ (BDNF), responsible for learning and memory, being produced in greater quantities when we exercise.
So, running can increase our mood, attention span, help us to concentrate, allow us to learn better and increase our learning capacity. All of this, for free and without needing to take any substance like drugs or alcohol.
Running truly is a powerhouse for our mental health. A regular dose of the sport is just what the doctor ordered for a more fulfilled, happier, smarter, and sociable life. Happy running.