What can a few minutes of moderate running do for mental health?

Numerous studies suggest that running can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Scientists have confirmed the beneficial substances that are released in the brain during this activity

Physical exercise
A woman runs through a park.Martin Novak (Getty Images)
Sara Tabares

“The simple act of running for an hour every day — thereby ensuring time for myself — became a decisive habit for my mental health,” writes Haruki Murakami in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The award-winning Japanese novelist has competed in several marathons around the world.

When you run, you take a break. You breathe; you distance yourself from your problems. It’s an action that goes beyond physical exercise. If analyzed from a biomechanical point of view, it’s a total movement of the body that can have a great impact on mental health, through the stimulation of parts of the brain.

Exercise can be a medicine in itself, so long as it’s prescribed in the correct doses. A paper published by Annual Review of Medicine indicates that people who practice it have better mental health when compared to sedentary people. Most studies suggest that training — particularly aerobic training — can improve symptoms related to depression and anxiety. For this reason, cardiovascular activity is included in the treatment recommendations from the American Psychiatric Association.

Research indicates that these mood improvements may be caused by increased blood circulation to the brain, through an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This results in physiological reactivity to stress. This physiological impact is probably mediated by the communication of this axis with various brain regions, including the limbic system.

“This area regulates our emotions and moods. Inside it, there are structures such as the hypothalamus, which [ensures that] the system is balanced and its needs are satisfied; the hippocampus, which facilitates memory, learning and motivation; and the amygdala, the sentinel of the emotional brain, which alerts you to dangers that could put your safety at risk,” explains health psychologist Manuel Antolín.

In addition to this, how can running help our brain? Well, running requires neural, top-down, forward control responses of multimodal sensory input, to execute the coordinated movements and balance required to stride. According to the existing research, the prefrontal cortex — a brain region involved in cognition and mood regulation — is partially involved in running, especially when there’s a demand for coordinated action. Muscles throughout the body, particularly the legs, are continually recruited to propel yourself forward while supporting body weight.

Would these same positive effects result from riding a bike? Possibly not. Running has positive effects on mood and executive function (related to prefrontal activation) when compared to other forms of exercise that don’t require as much coordination, such as cycling. Additionally, the mechanical impact of each foot strike during running has been shown to increase blood circulation, which may benefit brain activation.

Removing the knot in your chest

Antolín recommends looking at differences between the environments that you choose to run in. “The emotions that are felt while running through an urban area — surrounded by people, traffic, noise, pollution — [are different] from [what is felt] while running through a park, a field, or in the mountains. The reset, the disconnection and the mental clarity all increase when natural terrains are chosen,” he explains. “[However], if the opportunity exists, it’s advisable to experience the different sensations between these spaces.”

A study published by the prestigious journal Nature reveals that a moderate to intense run induces a positive mood and improves executive function. A jog or run coincides with cortical activation in the prefrontal subregions, which are involved in controlling inhibitions and regulating emotions. Basically, running helps undo the knots that form in our chests.

“Soon after I stop running, everything I’ve suffered and everything miserable I’ve felt is forgotten, as if it never happened. I’m already determined to do better next time,” Murakami explains in his book on running. He attributes some of his writing to the euphoria experienced post-run.

Initially, it was thought that the main culprits for these positive sensations were the beta-endorphin levels that rise in the bloodstream over the course of a route. This, along with the release of endorphins in the brain, could be related to the feeling of being over the moon. These factors also help a person feel less pain: they can act as natural pain relieves, bolstering the ability to withstand longer periods of exercise.

The so-called “runner’s high” is characterized by a mixture of simultaneous sensations: euphoria and relaxation. For decades, scientists believed that endorphins were primarily responsible for this. Through imaging, studies found that, during two-hour runs, runners’ prefrontal and limbic regions (which light up in response to emotions such as love) released endorphins. The greater the increase in endorphins in these areas of the brain, the more euphoric the runners felt.

Endorphins and cannabinoids

However, in recent years, research has revealed that endorphins might not be the only things responsible for these good feelings. New studies point to another type of molecule: endocannabinoids. Like endorphins, exercise seems to release them into the bloodstream. If you feel euphoric or relaxed after running, these molecules found in the human body (and similar to the active ingredients in cannabis) may be responsible.

As the Japanese writer describes: “While running, I sometimes think of rivers. Sometimes I think about the clouds. But, in substance, I don’t think about anything. Simply, I keep running in the middle of that silence that I longed for, in the middle of that flirtatious and handmade silence. It’s really great. No matter what they say.”

Feeling how the wind caresses your face with each stride, taking note of your heartbeat, exhaling, even if you’re short of breath. Without a doubt, running can be a tool to improve your concentration, beat stress and improve your mood.

From theory to practice

  1. Assessing and acknowledging your physical condition should be the first step before buying the latest model of sneakers. The best investment is in understanding your state of health, be it by taking a fitness exam in a clinical setting, or getting your heart rate checked. A sports doctor, together with a physical activity professional, can instruct you on how to run safely.
  2. “You have to be fit to be able to run; you don’t run to be fit,” physical therapist Diane Lee once said. Starting from this premise, running — so long as you have adequate neuromuscular conditioning — is favorable for physical health: it improves cardiovascular resistance, while strengthening muscles and bones.
  3. Strength training is also key. During a run, the impact of the stride on the ground produces a reaction — vibrations must be absorbed by the body. The muscles should be working properly to absorb this force and be able to keep lifting your feet. This goes hand-in-hand with strength training. Not only will you run better as a result of combining the two workouts: you’ll also prevent injuries. Oftentimes, a running regimen is abandoned, because the would-be runner starts from the roof, not the foundation. By starting out without sufficient strength, discomfort, pressure and bad feelings arise.
  4. Alternating running with walking is a good place to begin. You can start by alternating two minutes of walking at a brisk pace, with one minute of running, before gradually increasing your running time.
  5. Listen to the body. Don’t ignore how you feel when you run. Remember: if it hurts, don’t do it. In the event of any joint discomfort, see a professional (be it a podiatrist, physiotherapist or trainer) who can assess where the cause may lie. If you don’t pay attention to pain, it can lead to injury and put you out of the race.
  6. Prepare to feel a lot of things. In addition to the high, you may experience reduced anxiety, less depression, improved memory, better concentration and more creativity. Try running through green environments to stimulate these positive effects.
  7. Feed your body the energy it needs. The general rule that running improves depression can find an exception in people suffering from pathologies, such as restrictive anorexia. “Malnutrition can cause depression. If the patient has little energy due to their caloric deficit, running can aggravate their malnutrition and, therefore, increase the runner’s depressive state,” Antolín clarifies.
  8. Lastly, recovery is key. Allow yourself to have rest days. Recovering well is just as important as training.

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