The following is excerpted from “Running Is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier” by Scott Douglas, 2018. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. experimentpublishing.com
In any given year, about 20 per cent of American adults suffer from depression and/or anxiety. Medication and psychotherapy, the two main treatments in the United States, are powerful aids that have saved and improved countless lives.
There’s growing support for a third treatment-exercise. Official guidelines in some countries outside the US call for exercise to be a first-line treatment for many cases of depression and anxiety. These guidelines reflect an increasing body of clinical evidence that exercise is at least as effective as medication and psychotherapy in reducing symptoms of the two conditions.
On their own, many people have discovered the power of regular running to manage their mental health. They have subjective experience of what research has shown to be true: Regular exercise causes the same structural changes in the brain that are thought to be behind the effectiveness of antidepressant medication, according to Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University. And exercise produces those changes with side effects like improved mood, weight control, and heart health.
While any exercise is better than none in managing mental health, many people find running to be uniquely effective. The key to improving your mental health with exercise is consistency-in frequency of workouts and in keeping your heart rate in the moderate-intensity range where the mental-health magic happens. Running doesn’t have the extensive gear and technique barriers of many sports. You can do it pretty much anywhere, pretty much every day of the year. And it’s easy to hit and sustain the right effort level.
On top of those logistical chits in running’s favour, there are aspects of being a runner that reinforce the mental health benefits of exercise. Running is empowering; seeing yourself regularly set and reach goals gives a feeling of capability that can be applied to the rest of your life. Running also often brings a change in thinking-new solutions to old problems seem to materialise out of nowhere after a couple of miles. Add to that how running strengthens social connections and encourages other habits that boost mental health, and you can see why so many people say, “Running is my therapy.”
You don’t need to run marathons or run so fast that you exhaust yourself to get these benefits. Consistency and moderation are the keys to long-term running success. Use the tips below to maximise the powerful mental-health treatment of regular running.
Any run is better than no run when it comes to short-term mood improvement or long-term help with depression and anxiety. But some runs are more effective than others. Here’s some brief guidance on how best to get a post-run boost. Most of these topics are covered in greater detail in chapter 4.
Most studies find significant mood boosts after 30 minutes of running. Improvements in mood tend to last longer after longer runs. But a 20-minute run is much closer to a 90-minute run than it is to not running. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking about duration or distance, such as that a “real” run has to be at least five miles long or it’s not worth doing. The most important step on any day is the first one, the one that gets you out the door. On tough mental days, start your run with a flexible route that you can shorten or lengthen as feels best.
Research has found the greatest increase in get-happy brain chemicals following moderate-intensity workouts. In running terms, that’s your basic getting-in-the-miles effort at a conversational pace. But there’s more to mood than brain chemical levels. Pushing yourself through a hard workout provides a needed sense of setting and accomplishing a goal. At the other end of the spectrum, give yourself permission to run as slowly as you want on especially tough mental days. Again, the most important thing about any one run is that it happens.
People usually report better mood improvement (more tranquility, greater reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression) when running in natural settings compared with populated human-made environments. Of course, schedules and geography usually get in the way of regularly running through paradise. Choose visually interesting routes with minimal traffic as often as possible. When time allows, make an effort to run in beautiful settings for an above-and-beyond boost.
Plan to run whenever you’re most likely to actually run most of the time. Many runners with depression and anxiety especially value morning runs because they set a positive tone and provide an example of success for the rest of the day.
Assuming you have options on whether to run solo or with others, opt for whichever setup feels right for the day. Running by yourself can work best when you need to think through an issue with the help of that special on-the-run clarity. A solo run before or after a hectic day will probably also be more calming. Run with others when you need a break from your internal monologue or would benefit from talking through things with trusted friends. And if you’re struggling to activate, schedule runs with others to increase the chances of getting out the door.
With What Purpose
Regularly mixing up all of the above variables should keep your running more interesting, which will make consistently going for runs more likely, which will mean greater mental-health benefits. Having runs of different length, intensity, and setting within each week also helps free you from the common thinking trap that all your days are the same.
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