If you’re not a runner, you might not think of it as relaxing. But, avid runners and scientists agree, running (or aerobic exercise in general) could actually make you feel more relaxed and improve your mental health.
If any year were a good time to look into a sport that could ease your anxiety and improve your mental health, 2020 is it. COVID-19. Working and learning from home. The election. Forest fires. Job uncertainty. Economic uncertainty. Health uncertainty. It’s a lot to take in and even if you’ve never experienced mental health concerns before, your anxiety might be peaked.
But there’s good news for those who want to try to get a handle on their mental health.
A study of 14,000 people undertaken by Asics during the pandemic has found that 82% of UK runners say running is helping to clear their mind, and 78% feel more sane and in control as a result of running.
That’s great, but running can do so much for your brain than help it hold on to sanity.
Benefits of Running on Your Brain
- Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression
- Helps slow cognitive decline
- Provides more energy
- Creates new brain cells to improver overall performance, decision-making and learning
- Boosts productivity and creativity
These are some awesome benefits but running also has some pretty significant effects on the parts of our brain that impact our mental health, anxiety levels, and stress reactions.
So why is running or aerobic exercise so great for your brain? There are a few reasons.
Increases Brain Activity in Key Sections
When you run or engage in any other aerobic exercise, there is an increase in blood circulation to your brain. This influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and improves your body’s physiologic reactions to stress. It improves this reaction by improving communication between systems, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood.
Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
It’s been found that, in younger people, running results in an increase in activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cortex. This is a key area for problem-solving and emotional resilience (and we could all use a little emotional resilience right now).
It’s long been an assumption that the “runner’s high” so many dedicated runners experience was related to endorphins. But recent research shows that the sense of satisfaction, calm, and new found energy that comes after a run is due to an increase of endocannabinoids in the system.
Endocannabinoids are produced by our endocannabinoid system and help various functions of our body run smoothly. Dr. David Linden, a neuroscience professor at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, discovered that the relaxed, post-run feeling might be due to an increase in the levels of endocannabinoids, biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body, in the bloodstream.
“Unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the cellular barrier separating the bloodstream from the brain, where these mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm,” says Dr. Linden.
While this feeling of calm is a short-term effect, Linden says runners will experience long-term mental benefits as well. “Exercise has a dramatic antidepressive effect,” says Linden. “It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.”
Reduced Inflammation in the Brain
People with mental health conditions or excessive stress will often have an increase in inflammatory markers that are a sign of stress within the body. These markers are a type of inflammation and it’s been found that running can reduce these markers. This makes sense given that CBD, a type of endocannabinoid, can help reduce inflammation.
Enlarges the Hippocampus
The hippocampus, a part of our brain responsible for turning short-term memory into long-term memory, is also really important for emotional processing. In conditions like dementia and depression, this part of the brain shrinks. It’s been shown that running can increase the size of the hippocampus, in both the long-term and the short-term. In 12-16 weeks you can see an increase in size but in as little as ten minutes you can see a spike in electrical activity in this part of the brain.
Running And Your Mental Health
When the scientific jargon is removed, running can:
- Reduce stress
- Improve your mood
- Reduce inflammation in the brain
- Increase brain activity
- Help process emotions
- Reduce anxiety
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, it might a good time to increase your aerobic exercise (always make sure to seek help or talk to a therapist if you’re feeling overwhelmed). You can always start small, but studies show that aerobic exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate depression (with much better side effects!).