The Mental Health Benefits of Running

Author profile image of Ben Fraser
Author: Ben Fraser
Last Updated:
Recovery Runners running in Leeds

Since late March 2020 the world has gone through a lot of transformation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Every single person has had to adapt and it’s felt like a merry go round of change and transition. 

Take the national and local lockdowns. These restrictive measures stopped us from being social creatures. The government has since shared their own research that connects these events to a widespread spike in poor mental health

Running is a habit that can ease the effects of poor mental health, particularly during stressful periods of our lives. This is because it can fit around what you can do and what you need to do. The result is a powerful shift in the health of our mind and body. At a time when masses of people are struggling; here’s why running is really important to you…

Runners High

It was reported that during the first national lockdown the amount of booze people were drinking increased for a quarter of adults. Using the calming effects of alcohol to manage or self-medicate can take a toll. The NHS directly links 12 risks associated with drinking over a long period. To counter this, running is proven to benefit the mind and body. As a runner you’re probably well acquainted with that gorgeous euphoric release known as an ‘endorphin high’. But, wait a second…

David J. Linden, Ph.D. is a professor from John Hopkins University that has revealed the real science behind the runner’s high. Endorphins are involved but they aren’t the cause. Once you finish an energetic run you trigger the endocannabinoid system which releases chemicals that have an effect very similar to cannabis (minus the paranoia). That’s where the euphoric feeling comes from. 

Science aside, Jamie Heselden and Dean Smith are real examples of how running can positively change your life.

Recovery Runners Dean Jamie

Jamie and Dean have both conquered addictions to drink and drugs. After attempting to take his own life for the third time in 2006, Dean began turning his life around. A huge part of this transformation has been running. Whether it’s a 5k or a marathon both Dean and Jamie have harnessed the power of running to improve their mental health and stay sober. 

Both believe that running with others has been a huge driver behind this progress. Jamie runs with the Rothwell Harriers and Dean runs with the South Leeds Lakers. The support they have received has inspired them to lead Couch to 5k running groups with Leeds rehabilitation services Spacious Places and Growing Rooms.

From run leaders to run community organisers. Now, both Jamie and Dean have set up their own running group called the Recovery Runners. This community support people from Leeds and beyond who are recovering from issues like drugs, alcohol, suicide attempts, gambling and eating disorders. 

Recovery run leader Martin has experienced first hand how big a part a community like this can play in his own recovery.

I had the ego the size of a planet yet my self-esteem was in the gutter. I built my self-esteem up by doing estimable things. You can see it in peoples faces how they react when they run the farthest in their lives. They end up happy and proud of themselves.

Martin’s ability to run has recently been at risk due to health reasons.

I’m not young and my knees are bad. A consultant told me to stop running. I said you don’t understand. He told me to get a bike. I said you don’t understand!

Stories like Jamie’s & Dean’s are told around the strength of community and togetherness you get from running with others. In conversation with Claudia, a Recovery Runner, this was really illuminated:

A lot of the time it’s combining running with great conversation or having a laugh. Actually, there is a lot of spiritual and emotional support I get to draw on while running down a sunny canal path… it’s quite beautiful really.

The act of running with other people is the accountable action that will maintain your participation on a successful pathway. If you haven’t tried running with others you should check out one of these groups running together in Leeds.

More after this. Continue reading below ↓

Stress Buster

Individuals that are inflicted by poor mental health are often in a state of stress. Regular stress can inflame the peripheral area of the brain; a recurring low mood is common and falling into a state of depression a severe manifestation. 

Professor Linden has shown running to actually reduce the inflammatory spikes on the brain. This is because running has a “dramatic anti-depressive effect”, he succinctly points out…

It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.

How incredible is that? One of the most primal movements of arms and legs actually reduces the effects of anxiety and depression. More blood is pumped to the brain, in particular the area that deals with stress. The result is an elevated mood. One that people like Michael attest to maintaining a positive level of mental health consistently for years.

Where my mental ill health draws me away from my body and into my brain, running does the opposite. Feeling my blood pumping, my lungs gasping and my muscles stretching, I find myself pulled back to the present and my immediate surroundings.

Emily Cotter, Leeds Mind, Marketing, PR & Communications Officer reinforces Michael’s experience.

We know running can help with better sleep and lifting your mood. Running can also help manage stress and anxiety, acting as a mindful activity to calm racing thoughts and clear your mind.

Sugarwell Hill Park running route

Brainpower Boost

Running and exercise is a remedy to reversing the decline of the brain in old age. Taking it one step further, running can actually improve the performance of it. It does this by producing brand new brain cells through a process called neurogenesis

Emotional Processing 

In tandem with bettering your brainpower, running also helps us process our emotions and memories. Running supports the healthy functioning of a part of the brain called the hippocampus – when depression takes hold this area of your noggin can shrink, so it’s important to give an extra lift to the electrical activity upstairs in this area by moving more.

Better Sleep

By the end of the day the gradual wind down into a healthy sleeping routine is actually encouraged if you’ve run that day. The chemicals – endocannabinoids – we release when we run settle the body into a state of relaxation and deep sleep.

Why Running?

Running is a no frills cheap way to get a good dose of physical activity. What’s more you can run solo or with people depending on your mood and your run. Yet, it’s worth considering your starting point, and if that’s from a place of un-wellness, start by being kind to yourself. 

When setting SMART goals and expectations make these realistic to avoid big disappointments. And if you’re starting to run from scratch, you can begin using the Couch to 5k app and ease yourself in with a walk-jog combo.

All measured it can be hard to get going when it comes to running. One of the most common barriers to beginning is knowing ‘where to run’ – is a resource that removes this barrier. You can search by postcode location and find out all you need to know before your run: where to park?; where the nearest toilet is?; and a trackable route map!  

Running routinely does amazing things for your body and mind. It boosts the brain’s power; gives you better sleep; and alleviates stress. The more running and physical activity you can do a week – from as little as 30-minutes to 300-minutes – the more you can maximise these health benefits.

The wider impact of this is a person with better self-worth who can do more. It is a tool that at its most powerful can be life changing for the better.

Yet, not every person can expect running alone to bring about change in themselves and their circumstances. Below is a list of mental health services in Leeds that are professionally trained and resourced to support you in your time of crisis. 

Author profile image of Ben Fraser
Ben Fraser

Ben is an experienced runner and fitness enthusiast who has been working in the sport and fitness industry for over 10 years. His passion for running began when he founded the Run Leeds project, while working for England Athletics. Ben is passionate about the sport of running and is always looking for ways to improve it. He is dedicated to helping runners of all ages and abilities to achieve their goals. He believes that running is one of the most enjoyable and accessible sports and loves to spread the joy of running.

More running articles