People are drawn to running for a number of reasons. It’s uncomplicated, easy to get started, and a good way to burn a lot of calories. Plus, it doesn’t require a lot of fussy equipment.
I started running for the metabolic boost and was inspired by the look of runners’ legs.
While I used to run a few miles here and there, I never considered myself a runner until one of my personal training clients challenged me to run the San Francisco Half Marathon back in the early aughts.
I remember saying I wasn’t a “real” runner, and he asked me to try just one. He thought that, as a busy fitness professional and mother of a toddler, I would be “comforted by the training schedule.” I wish I could remember that man’s name because he nailed it.
Many years, countless halves, and 21 full marathons later, I can wholeheartedly say that while I still enjoy the metabolic boost of running, what I love most is the soothing comfort of those hours alone with my breath and thoughts.
I’m still a busy working mom, but I’m calmer, happier, and less stressed when I’ve had my pavement-pounding me time.
When I’m running — whether I’m listening to my favorite podcast or the sounds of the world — my mind calms, my logical brain sorts out anything I’m puzzling about, and big, audacious stressors are brought down to size.
My anxiety levels plummet, not just during the run, but also in its aftermath.
How common is anxiety?
Many, if not most, people experience anxiety at some point in their lives, with about 18% of American adults (approximately 40 million) experiencing anxiety each year (1).
There are different types of anxiety, from generalized anxiety disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but anxiety is the most common mental disorder. Fortunately, most forms of it are highly treatable (2).
Excellent evidence supports the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise. However, if you have a serious mental issue, please seek professional help, which may consist of therapy, medication, or some combination of the two (
Athlete and writer Matt Fitzgerald (my favorite running guru) writes about this very thing in his book “How Bad Do You Want It?”
“At the molecular level, several neurotransmitters, or brain messenger chemicals, are released. Among these are norepinephrine, which enhances mental focus, and endorphins, which are the source of the famous runner’s high,” he explains.
Basically, the combination of an oxygen-soaked brain (making your head defog) and reduction of stress hormones that result from high intensity exercise makes you feel good and think clearly.
Studies have shown that as little as one workout can cause a change in your anxiety level, but the more regular the exercise, the stronger its effects (4).
There are several science-backed benefits of running, especially when it comes to your mental health.
Reduces stress by lowering cortisol
Whether it’s a peaceful yoga workout or a high intensity bout on the treadmill, exercise is proven to immediately reduce the amount of the stress hormone cortisol (5).
The benefits of lower cortisol include better muscle repair and metabolism, along with reduced inflammation, stress, and anxiety, due to this stress hormone’s role in creating fight-or-flight feelings (
Improves mood and reduces feelings of discomfort
Endorphins are brain chemicals produced to reduce pain and discomfort. They act similarly to opioid drugs by producing feelings of euphoria. Not only do they stimulate a better mood, but they also can help mask feelings of discomfort for hours after intense exercise (
Endocannabinoids are also thought to contribute to runner’s high — that euphoric mood you feel after completing a run. Research on the role of endocannabinoids after exercise is still limited, but smaller studies indicate that exercise of any intensity can boost mood (10).
What’s more, outdoor runners may reap double mood-enhancing benefits.
That’s because regular exposure to sunlight, especially bright light, can significantly reduce depression. Additionally, the fresh air adds more brain-boosting benefits than running indoors (
Increases mental clarity
Even one run can change your brain chemistry in the part of the brain responsible for cognitive function, thanks to increased oxygen to the prefrontal cortex (
This translates to better decision making, reduced impulsivity, and an increased attention span if you’re exercising regularly. Feeling less brain fog and more mental clarity can reduce feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and depression.
May prevent cognitive decline and increase memory
The boost of blood flow and oxygen to the brain can reduce and possibly even prevent many of the cognitive effects of aging. Even at rest, regular exercisers have been shown to have higher levels of blood flow to the brain
This is great news for cardiovascular health and longevity, and it also bodes well for brain health. Research has indicated that the boost of oxygen to the brain that comes from running regularly may also offer protective benefits against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (
Can have you feeling more productive
Regular exercise improves productivity by boosting creativity, enhancing energy, and having the clarity to manage your tasks with ease. When you’re managing things handily, you’ll get more done, avoid overwhelm, and likely experience more satisfaction from your work (16).
Will help you sleep better
Chronic sleep deprivation can be a big cause of mental health issues. Fortunately, studies showing a correlation between exercise and sleep quality are plentiful (
A moderate intensity workout in the morning or afternoon is ideal for enhancing your body’s ability to properly rest.
It’s generally not advised to do a very long or high intensity run shortly before bed. Instead, give your body time to recover and reset before settling in for the night.
May boost self-esteem and body image
Conquering obstacles and improving your health can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Running gives immediate feedback. When you have a particularly good run, you may feel strong, powerful, and fast. This feeling of accomplishment can contribute to a positive body image, as you’re seeing your body for what it can do rather than judging its aesthetics (
This powerful feeling of accomplishment can help shape your thoughts about your body. Body image is a complex and emotionally charged issue for many, but it’s clear that running regularly has the potential to help reshape the way you see your shape.
Indeed, you can reap anxiety-reducing benefits from other forms of exercise.
You can certainly calm your mind with a mediation or yoga class, but it’s hard to beat the simplicity and aggression of a hard run when you’re stressed. Compared with low intensity exercise, the sheer vigor of running boosts this effect — the more oxygen, the greater benefit.
And there’s just something about running that seems to calm the body’s fight or flight response. You may not be running from a bear or other predator, but running will help you escape intrusive thoughts just the same.
- Aim to run in at least 3 times per week. The more frequently you treat your body to oxygen-enhancing, stress-relieving exercise, the more your body can adapt. Take a rest day as needed, but even a short run has benefits.
- Vary your intensity. You don’t need to do a grueling 10-mile run every day. Even a mile or two in the fresh air will give you a quick reset. Ideally, you can get a 30-minute workout in on most days, but take it easy on yourself if you need an easy day.
- Mix it up. Running workouts can take many forms. You can do a long, slow distance run every 7–10 days, but your other workouts can be as varied as your imagination allows. Try a tempo run, fartlek running, hill repeats, or track work. They all pack benefits, and the variety will keep you interested.
- Plug in or unplug. Listen to a podcast or music if you need a distraction, or leave your earbuds at home and enjoy some quiet time with yourself.
- Take it easy on yourself. Creating a habit takes time. You may struggle to get started, but if you commit to yourself and don’t make it a high pressure situation, you’ll absolutely reap the benefits.
- Plan to run with a friend. Scheduling runs with others is a way to help hold yourself accountable, as well as reap the added benefit of socializing while you’re exercising (20).
Experiencing anxiety from time to time can simply be part of the human experience, but you don’t have to accept it as inevitable. You may be able to alleviate some of your symptoms by going for a run.
Running’s many benefits for your body and mind can help you gain the brain chemistry and mental clarity to lift yourself out of your fog. Most people find it easy to get started, and the benefits can be immediate. What do you have to lose?