Why do you run?
Odds are, you have more than one reason for lacing up and getting out there. But for most runners, physical fitness is the overriding concern. You want to look and feel your best — and if you’re being honest, you like thumbing your nose at Father Time.
There’s another dimension to the health benefits of running, though. Mounting evidence suggests regular aerobic exercise is correlated with better mental health outcomes.
We’re still learning how and why running is good for mental health, but we have some ideas. Here are eight ways running can improve your cognitive well-being alongside your cardiovascular fitness.
1. Running Is a Natural Stress Reliever
Aerobic exercise releases stress-relieving hormones, calming your nerves during and after a run. A landmark study in Health Psychology found that people who exercised often were significantly less likely to report “negative emotional affect” during periods of regular exercise than people who weren’t as active.
2. Running Helps Boost Your Mood
The stress-relieving hormones released during running — and other “happy hormones” correlated with regular exercise — can help lift your mood after your workout.
Chemically, the effect is similar to what occurs when you ingest certain mind-altering substances. There’s a reason they call it a “runner’s high.” Of course, the mechanism is far better for your long-term mental and physical health.
3. Running Helps You Forget (Sort of)
Some of us listen to podcasts when we run. Others prefer upbeat music. A few prefer silence, and that’s cool too.
Whatever your running soundtrack, you know that the act of running is contemplative, even meditative. When you run, you’re not totally lost in your own world — or shouldn’t be, for safety’s sake. But you’re distracted enough that your mind probably isn’t racing, as it’s wont to do when you’re truly alone with your thoughts.
4. Running Helps You Sleep Better
Running may improve your sleep, according to research by the National Sleep Foundation and others. A 2003 survey of older adults by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who exercise less than once per week were significantly more likely to get too little sleep (less than six hours per night) and to report suboptimal sleep quality, problems falling asleep, and sleep disorders like sleep apnea.
If you run often, this checks out. Even if you don’t push yourself during your run, you’re more tired afterward, and that “good” weariness carries through until bedtime.
5. Running Gets You Outside, Weather Permitting
Nothing against treadmills, but many running purists argue that it’s not truly running if it’s not done in the elements. Whether you agree or not, frequent outdoor activity is correlated with positive mental health outcomes, especially when it occurs in natural environments.
6. Running Puts You in Touch With Nature (Again, Weather Permitting)
You don’t have to run in a natural environment, or even outdoors, to reap the mental and physical health benefits. If you do have access to quality parkland, though, running there stacks the baseline benefits of running with the added boost of experiencing nature — itself shown to improve mental health outcomes.
7. Running Can Be Social
If you prefer to run solo, that’s fine. Many lifelong runners have no trouble staying motivated with no one else to hold them accountable.
Plenty of us prefer to run with others, though — whether physically alongside them, or alongside them in spirit with an app as an intermediary. Either way, the social dimension of running strengthens its mental health argument.
8. Running Can Break Up (or Center) Your Day
Whether you run first thing in the morning, hit the trail at lunchtime, or wait until after work, you appreciate the importance of developing a running routine and sticking to it. Running is a healthy, natural way to start the day off right, end it on a high note, or break it up.
So Many Reasons to Run
If you’re a regular runner, you’ve probably noticed some of these benefits already, even if improving your mental health isn’t your primary reason for running.
The beauty of running — what keeps so many of us lifelong runners going — is that there’s not merely one good reason to run. There are many, encompassing every dimension of human health.
So, don’t feel like you have to embrace the mental (or physical) health benefits of running if you’re not sold on them. You can run simply because you enjoy it, or because someone you love enjoys it.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You just have to get out there.