Running is known for its physical benefits, but there’s more to it than shedding some weight, toning your calves and increasing your cardiovascular health. Author Haruki Murakami has long noted the benefits long-distance running has provided to his life, giving him the time and space to think about his writing, life and more.
Many others have equally spoken about the ability to meditate while running, as the repetitive physical effort allows the brain to essentially “turn off,” reaching a calm mindset akin to meditating in silence for hours at a time.
With this in mind, how does running benefit our minds? What are the mental benefits of long-distance running?
The following will show you just how important your daily runs are the next time you throw on your short shorts, lace up, put on your Apple Watch medical alert bracelet and head out the door.
The Chemistry of Your Brain
Running is an amazing thing. It gets your pulse pumping, your lungs constricting and expanding and your muscles flexing with each lunge and planted step. But it does more than that.
You’ve probably heard of the runner’s high — that short-lived, euphoric feeling that follows the run, where the runner feels utterly elated after many miles of pain. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know just how incredible of a feeling it is. If not, it’s something you’ve probably long been chasing. But what causes it?
When you run, your body releases endorphins. More often than not, those endorphins are sent to your muscles, as they help prevent your muscles from feeling pain. At the same time, your brain releases endocannabinoids, a naturally produced chemical similar to cannabis. But sometimes, those endorphins and endocannabinoids manage to remain in the bloodstream, which will eventually be transported to the brain.
If they make it to the brain, it leads to an incredibly relaxed, calm feeling, one where the body feels a sense of euphoria — even after the considerable pain of having run many miles.
For some people, it can become a more common occurrence, especially if they run for longer than an hour. It’s something to work toward, but something to equally look forward to. But the positives of running go beyond just pure chemical analysis of the brain. It does more to benefit a runner’s mental health.
Runners may wear medical ID jewelry while they’re on a run, solely because it gives them peace of mind by knowing they’re protected in the event of a medical emergency. It’s a stress reducer, and running itself does a similar thing.
People who are stressed often utilize exercise as a way to de-stress, whether it’s after a stressful event, a difficult exam or a tough day at the office. A run helps reduce stress, not just by the chemicals it distributes to the brain, but for the activity itself. The repetitive nature of running can reduce stress on its own. It’s something physical and almost mindless. That is enough to provide calm in times of serious stress.
Think More Clearly
High-intensity exercise has also been shown to improve a person’s capacity to retain knowledge and information. Recent studies showed that running boosted a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is a protein that is essential to improving and maintaining the brain’s cognitive functions.
This makes exercise important for people currently in school, working from the office, learning a new language or in middle age. It helps to sharpen memories and improves the ability to retain new information. Furthermore, the activity of running is more than enough time to think and consider the things that you have learned during the day. For some, it’s a time to collect one’s thoughts or go over material they have studied during the day.
Research has shown that exercise boosts creativity, making it an excellent physical outlet for those of us who work in the creative arts, want to improve their abilities at a hobby or work a desk job and want to improve their daily mental acuity.
Furthermore, that time spent running allows more than enough time to think about various things. Whether it’s art, music, sewing, literature, hairstyling or architecture, you can use that time wisely, putting it towards improving your craft while having improved mental capacity.
Improve Your Mood
Along with reducing general stress, running has also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Along with releasing natural stimulants in the brain that improve your overall mood, increased blood circulation can help improve the movement of said stimulants, as well as improving your brain’s responses to them and other stimuli. And after you make running a habit, the stimulation can effectively transform from a temporary improvement in mood to a consistent positive change.
Feel Better About Yourself
Running can do a lot for how you view yourself, too. Along with helping you shed some extra weight and tone your body, which may be enough to get people to feel better about themselves, it can go further to improve your overall self-esteem. Research has shown that increased endurance runs lead to improved aerobic cardiovascular health, which, in turn, can lead to improved oxygen intake and blood flow — while also lowering a person’s resting heart rate. All of these combined can lower a person’s stress and anxiety, which can lead to them feeling more positive about their life and themselves as a person.
Manage Substance Abuse
Lastly, running is also a great way to curb unhealthy habits, particularly those that are mental, dietary and more. Reports have shown that many former addicts turned to ultrarunning to manage their former addictions. While some might consider it an addiction in its own right, switching a destructive one out for a healthy one, it’s a great way for many addicts to finally feel as if they’re in control. Rather than giving themselves up to a drug, they’re able to take control of their body and use it as they see fit. The natural production of dopamine and serotonin is an excellent response to drug replacement, allowing the brain to properly manage itself in a healthier way.
The mental benefits to running go far further than what we have even mentioned here. If you want to know just how well it can help mental health, it’s time for you to lace up and find out for yourself!