Running for mental health – what are the benefits?

From building social connections to managing anxiety and depression, running is good for your mental health in many ways.

Running undoubtedly makes you feel good. Even when the weather has been unfavourable or you have reluctantly put on your trainers and headed outdoors, running always seems to make you feel better afterwards.

The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to run for long to reap the mental health benefits of running.

Research from Asics as part of its global State of Mind survey has found that a short run or run/walk can also benefit your mental health. You might imagine you’d need to run for quite a while to feel better, but surprisingly that’s not the case. Just 15 minutes and nine seconds has been found to be the short time it takes to experience a lift in your mood.

Older male and female running outdoors togetherCredit: Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com – Uri A

“Even getting out for a little bit of time can do a lot for you,” says Hayley Jarvis, mental health charity Mind’s head of physical activity. “Asics’ research has shown that just 15:09 minutes of being active can improve your mood. Knowing that going for a short run could help uplift the mind or counter the stresses from daily life is a game-changer.”

To learn more about why running is good for your mental health, we’ve spoken with a mental wellbeing and physical activity expert, plus a qualified run leader and keen runner (who you may be familiar with, as she’s also part of the Saga Exceptional team).

Running helps your mind switch off

While all forms of exercise offer benefits for both your physical and mental health, running is an incredibly popular pastime for many of us. According to Sport England’s most recent Active Lives survey, almost six million people regularly lace up their trainers and go for a run at least twice a month.

Having only the route ahead and the scenery around you for company when you go out for a run is great for relieving stress and helping you to switch off and unwind. It’s a mental health benefit of running that many runners appreciate.

In 2020, 14,000 runners globally were surveyed by Asics to find out how running was benefiting their mental wellbeing, with 82% of UK runners saying running helped to clear their mind. A further 78% said running helped them to feel more “sane and in control”.

Becky Frew, a qualified run leader and fitness writer at Saga Exceptional, says: “Running has helped me get through many challenging times. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, it’s the only one remedy for me.

“Lacing up and getting outside for a run (or even a spot of Jeffing, which mixes running with walking) helps put things that are bothering me into perspective.”

Running builds social connections

Even when you head out on a solo run, it’s quite common for you to share a smile, wave or exchange a greeting with others as you progress along your chosen route.

Social psychology research has found having fleeting social interactions with people you don’t know can make you feel happier. Being more sociable has also been linked with helping you to live longer so joining a running club or participating in Parkrun could be just the ticket.

“We all have mental health in the same way as we have physical health and both can fluctuate over time,” explains Jarvis.

“Many people find joining a walking or running group has huge benefits for their mental health. It’s a great way to build new relationships and increase social contact that can boost self-esteem, and help reduce loneliness.”

Helps manage anxiety and depression

A 2020 review of research into the relationship between running and mental health found it is particularly beneficial for managing anxiety and depression. Running outdoors as a form of green exercise is even better for you, says Jarvis.

“Outdoor exercise like running is particularly effective for improving our mental health, and evidence supports this,” she says. “The University of Essex carried out some research for Mind, which found that 94% of people who took part in outdoor exercise said green exercise benefits their mental health. Activities that take place in nature, known as ecotherapy, can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.

“Getting active in nature can provide a welcome distraction from any negative or intrusive thoughts, and allow us to switch off from everyday pressures,” Jarvis adds. “Running can be great for relieving stress.”

Running gives you a natural high

One of the reasons why running is popular as a form of physical activity is how it helps to lift your mood. Many runners are familiar with the “runner’s high”, which describes the feeling of euphoria you can experience after a run. Jarvis says running also offers other feelgood benefits.

“Running releases endorphins along with dopamine and serotonin,” she explains. “But what people don’t often know about running is it also helps us to balance levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and this has been linked to a range of mental health problems including depression and anxiety.”

Frew adds that running is something that she finds is incredibly helpful for keeping well both in terms of her physical and mental health.

“I’m forever grateful that I can run, walk and shuffle my way through life,” she says. “My mental health would not be what it is today without running. The positive effects have been life-changing for me.”

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

  • twitter
  • linkedin