We all know running is great for our bodies, but just as importantly it is also an effective way in which to keep our minds in top notch condition. Psychologist Dr Abby Marr talks us through some of the major benefits running can have on our mental wellbeing ...
When we feel anxious, nervous, or in a panic, our bodies release a chemical called adrenaline. Adrenaline is responsible for the racing heart, fast breathing, sweating and shakiness that people feel when they experience anxiety. This chemical is released as a kind of primitive way of protecting ourselves against danger when we are in fear of something (known as 'fight or flight'). Basically it gets our bodies ready to either fight or run away from a situation, by pumping blood to our limbs and subsequently producing the symptoms we identify as nerves or panic.
So how can running help? Once the adrenaline is released into our system, it needs somewhere to go. Running is the fastest way to burn it off, leaving us feeling calm. Researchers at the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia induced anxiety symptoms in participants and then had them either rest for an hour or exercise for an hour - they found that exercise was three times as effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety compared to relaxation. So next time you feel anxiety getting the better of you, hit the road!
Beat The Blues
Physical exercise has consistently been found to have an effect on depression and low mood - in fact, your GP may well suggest a regular programme of exercise, such as running, as an alternative to prescribing anti-depressants for depression. How does this work? Well, research suggests that physical activity such as running releases certain chemicals in the brain called 'endorphins' which make us feel happier, known as the 'runner's high'. Running can also provide us with a real sense of achievement and control, counteracting the feelings of hopelessness associated with depression.
The Mental Health Foundation's campaign 'Up and Running!' reports that around 85% of people with mental health problems who tried exercise found it helpful - if you are unsure about how to get started, your GP can provide you with details of one of the 1300 schemes currently running in the UK.
Build Your Confidence
Running can build confidence in a way that few other forms of exercise can. The gradual process of increasing your running distance, fitness and strength provides a feeling of empowerment and accomplishment. Setting yourself achievable goals will help you to develop an all important 'can do' attitude about your capabilities, allowing you to set yourself more challenging goals.
As a regular running routine helps you to burn fat and tone muscle, you are likely to develop a more positive body image, which is known to boost self-esteem. Research also suggests that when we engage in a new sport, such as running, we learn to look at our bodies for what they can do, as well as what they look like, which further increases our positive feelings about ourselves.
Do you sometimes find it hard to wind down after a busy day? It is well-documented that increased exercise leads to better sleep. In one study, when participants were monitored over a three month period, those who increased their exercise reported improved sleep, compared with those who reduced their exercise reporting poorer quality sleep.
But it looks like there are even more benefits specifically from running - when runners were compared with weight lifters and inactive individuals, the runners not only fell asleep more quickly but also experienced a longer duration of sleep. It may also be that improved sleep makes us feel energised and like exercising more - an added bonus!
The best time to go for a run is during the day or early evening - going for a run too close to bedtime can leave you stimulated for several hours making it difficult to fall asleep.
Not only is running with other people a great way to meet new people and form new relationships, but there are added benefits. Scientists at Princeton University have found evidence to suggest that people are more able to maintain a regular exercise schedule when they exercise with friends. They also found that when combined with social interaction, exercise can be even more beneficial to the brain, lowering stress hormone levels and promoting the development of new brain cells. Finding a running partner or joining a running club can increase your motivation and make you more likely to achieve your goals - so drag a friend along or get searching for running clubs in your area.