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Why Running Can be Good and Bad for Your Mental Health

“If you’re feeling stressed out, lace up those running shoes and take them for a spin.” So goes the accumulated wisdom of studies on how running can reduce stress. But the other mental health benefits of this ancient sport may be less familiar—and potentially even stronger motivation to break in those running shoes.

Decreases symptoms of depression

Multiple studies have concluded that regular aerobic exercise—and primarily jogging or brisk walking— reduces the symptoms of clinical depression.

Improves your learning abilities

Both high-intensity running, in the form of anaerobic sprints, and low-impact aerobic running can improve your capacity to learn and retain new information and vocabulary. These benefits seemed to be more pronounced in the case of high-intensity running. However, both forms of running boosted levels of the protein BDNF (or brain-derived neurotrophic factor), and the neurotransmitter catecholamine, which are heavily associated with the brain’s cognitive (and learning) functions.

Sharpens your memory

The mental health benefits of running also include a sharper memory. When researchers in Brazil subjected sedentary, elderly rats to just five minutes of treadmill running several times a week over the course of only five weeks, the memory centre in the rats’ brains reportedly experienced a surge in production of BDNF, which led to results on rodent memory tests that were akin to those for younger rats.

Protects the brain from ageing

Running is a buffer against the effects of ageing on the brain. Scientists set out to learn which was better for the ageing brain, physical exercise or brain games. They found that physical exercise (in the form of running and other aerobic activities) won the day, on the basis of brain scans showing a lower rate of brain shrinkage and cognitive decline in elderly test subjects who were physically active.

Alleviates anxiety

Running and other vigorous forms of exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms and help you relax. In some studies, in fact, running may work as well as medication to relieve anxiety.

Helps you sleep better

These evidenced benefits to sleep include regulated circadian rhythms, heightened daytime alertness, quicker onset of sleep, deeper sleep, and the reduction of symptoms in those with insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.

Boosts self-esteem

Running is linked with greater self-esteem—or so went the findings of a study of teenage girls. Those who achieved higher scores, by running more laps at a faster pace, reportedly exhibited higher levels of self-esteem, in addition to better physical fitness. In other findings, overweight children who participated in vigorous aerobic exercise like running experienced a lift in self-esteem levels.

Increases your creativity

Intriguingly, running increased the creative thinking scores of participants. A finding apparently joins others that evidence a link between running and higher levels of creativity.

Decreases cravings for unhealthy foods and substances

That finding seems to hold true whether your cravings are for junk food or for drugs and alcohol. After one hour of fast running, study participants were more likely to opt for healthy dietary choices that included fruit and vegetables over junk food. Results were similar when marijuana, not junk food, was the substance of choice. Heavy marijuana users experienced a marked decline in both cravings and daily use after just a few sessions of running on a treadmill. And it turns out that running also reduces cravings for other drugs, whether it’s cocaine, meth, nicotine or alcohol.

Helps the brain heal from substance abuse

This holds true even when the drug in question is as potent a substance as meth. Meth decreases the brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin and burns out their receptors. Running, on the other hand, helps to re-normalise the function of these two key “feel good” neurotransmitters, and boosts their production.

BUT as a retired injured runner I myself have seen the benefit of some of the above, but also the following negative sides of running;


When there’s issues that a person needs to deal with running can form an unhealthy distraction. It can start to be a healthy escapism but can soon become a way of avoiding the real emotional issues that need to be processed and worked through.

Swapping one addiction/obsession for another

Depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol addiction, eating disorder, gambling, co-dependant relationship, workaholic etc we know are issues that aren’t good for our physical and mental health. Running can seem like a healthy activity, but not done in moderation it can lead to someone swapping one unhealthy addiction/obsession for another.

One fix solution

If running is the only way a runner can cope with extreme stress, and this is taken away through injury, or the ability to exercise because of other personal or work commitments, then this could lead to someone really struggling to cope. It is important to have a wide range of coping strategies to call on.


Training for a specific race, whether it’s a 5k or further can involve training sessions of between three and seven times a week. This can change the normal routine in the family home or with friends and family. If there isn’t negotiation and the runner being able to get the loved ones fully on board as the runners ‘support crew’ this can lead to resentment, and even jealousy from loved ones that running can seem to be the most important thing in the runners life.

Non-running friends and family can often ‘not get’ the new interest in running. It could result in improved relationships with insisting friends and family, with running as a new common interest. But it could also mean the runner becomes more distant and disconnected with the non-running loved ones. Any changes in us can have an effect on relationships around us.

In conclusion running, like anything else in our lives, needs to be kept in moderation. If runners can bare this in mind, the effects it’s having on the relationships around them, work on these non-running relationships and have a wide range of self-care and coping strategies then running can be an amazing and healthy addition to the runner’s life.

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