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Finlay McAndrew  •  Health & Wellbeing •  26.03.2020 •  5 min read

Why running is good for anxiety

Normally an article introduces a topic in a way which presents it as being subject to some sort of counter argument, but that isn’t the case here. One of the most positive effects of running is reducing anxiety levels. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re training for an event, fitness or for other reasons, running for anxiety relief is a powerful reason for getting out the door and putting one foot in front of the other.

This article gives clarity on why running is good for anxiety and stress and why this type of exercise is so important in our lives.

The science of what happens when we exercise

Running releases endorphins

Running will stimulate the production of endorphins. Many runners talk about the endorphin release at the end of a run and how it makes them feel good, commonly known as the “runner’s high”. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that act as natural pain killers and mood elevators. I get a sense of relaxation, optimism and a sense of calmness at the end of a run. I like to stop at the same place each time after a run, about 50 odd meters from my flat, and walk slowly along soaking up the special feeling. I never have any sensation of anxiety in these moments. Even though this feeling isn’t permanent, increasing endorphin levels can have a strong antidepressant effect. There is strong evidence to suggest that any kind of regular exercise is one of the best antidepressants.

Running clears the mind

We will also divert our energy away from the thing we’re stressed about when we’re exercising. I usually forget about something I’m stressed about within the first few strides of a run. Sometimes even just the process of putting on my shoes and picking the colour of socks I want to wear takes my focus away.

The simple act of moving your body can reduce muscle tension which in turn can lower the levels of anxiousness. Anxiety levels can also be reduced as a result of changes in brain chemistry that are stimulated by a rise in heart rate from exercise. The availability of anti-anxiety neurochemicals such as serotonin are increased.

Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones that are produced when we are stressed. Exercise will help reduce these levels. I often feel very differently about a situation I’m stressed about after going for a run. I put this down to a reduction in stress hormones but also, in having time to reflect on a situation and look at it objectively.



Running helps with decision-making

Many people find they’re stressed and overburdened by tasks or situations in which they think they don’t know how to deal with. Exercise activates the frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function. Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking and self-control. Difficultly with executive function can reduce our ability to focus, follow directions but most importantly handle our emotions. Going back to my earlier point, feelings about a situation can often change after some exercise. Going for a 15 to 20 minute walk or run may significantly improve your ability to deal with a situation and then reach a better outcome. In addition, exercising regularly builds up resources that increase our resistance against stormy emotions so this is why it’s so important to a form a routine and make exercise a consistent part of our lives.

The importance of routine and regularity

Some research shows that a single bout of exercise can help combat anxiety if it comes on. However, most benefit will come from forming a routine and exercising regularly. There is evidence that people with more anxiety tend to be more sedentary.

Training for events and races is a great reason to run and gets many people into more regular exercise. However, the risk of training for events is that becomes the only stimulus and many runners find it hard to exercise regularly without something to focus on. Hopefully some of the information above has highlighted the multiple mental well-being effects of exercise and that running regularly should be part of everyone’s routine as often as possible.


Runner in Sun

Focus on the process, not on the end goal

I am always training for races and build my training around events. However, I often find the process of training more rewarding and enjoyable than the actual races themselves. I never lose sight of the fact that exercise is always going to better my quality of life and will always make me emotionally rich as long as I do it for the right reasons. Even if I didn’t race, I would still exercise on a very regular basis.

Everyone will suffer from moments of anxiety and stress while others may experience more significant levels of anxiety and even depression. It’s comforting to know that we’re all human and that we all face the same battles. Getting out the door and getting the feet moving can sometimes be the hardest task but it’s worth it. Focusing on the process of regular exercise will help form a routine and make it easier to get out the door each time. This in turn will help curb bad habits that may seem like good short-term solutions but ultimately impact us negatively in the long term.

Run simply to put your mind at rest

Running for anxiety relief and mental well-being is really one of the most valuable reasons to do it. For those that are training regularly and are already out there, take positives from the fact that you are doing a lot to improve the quality of your life and help yourself overcome the inevitable everyday stresses. If you’re new to running or want to get out a bit more, just try and increase the regularity of training gradually and do what you’re comfortable with. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try putting on your running shoes, heading out the door, and let the runner’s high put your mind at ease.

I get a sense of relaxation, optimism and a sense of calmness at the end of a run.

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