While most people start running for the physical benefits of the sport, it can also be hugely beneficial for your mental health. A study on 14,000 people undertaken by Asics during the pandemic has found that 82% of UK runners say running helps to clear their mind, and 78% feel more sane and in control as a result of running.
As regular runners ourselves, we were keen to find out where the science stands on the mental health benefits of the sport. We spoke to Dr Brendon Stubbs from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London for more information on the research being done in this area, including some exciting new studies being carried out in partnership with Asics.
How does running help your mental health?
There is really good evidence that running can improve our mental health and protect us from various mental health conditions. Whenever you’re running, you get this great increase in electrical activity in key areas of the brain that are essential for processing emotions and helping consolidate memories from the short and the long term. One area we’ve been looking at in scans of people who engage in aerobic activity like running is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is really important for emotional processing. If you look at conditions like dementia, cognitive impairment or even depression, this area of the brain shrinks.
It’s been shown time and time again that in the medium term – 12 to 16 weeks – you can get increases in volume of the hippocampus through running, but also in the short term, after just ten minutes, you can get a real spike in electrical activity in this emotion-processing area of the brain.
Recently in younger people we’ve also found that running results in this great increase in activity in an area of the brain called the anterior cortex. Again, this is a key area for problem-solving and emotional resilience.
There’s a number of other factors that contribute as well, and one of the key things running does is release this brain fertiliser called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Whenever you undertake a single bout of running you get a release of BDNF and this encourages new brain cells across key areas of the brain.
There’s also a reduction in some inflammation. People who develop mental health conditions or become stressed have an increase in peripheral inflammation. By that I mean the body starts producing these inflammatory markers that are a sign of stress within the body. These start to increase when the body is stressed and it often happens if we’re fighting a physical disease. When people are becoming unwell with mental health conditions or their mental health is an issue, these markers are increased as well. We’ve seen that running can reduce these peripheral inflammatory markers.
You also get changes within the endocannabinoid system. This is a really important reward-processing area of the brain. We think this is the main reason why people experience the runner’s high.
Those are some of the key biological neuroscience perspectives on why running helps us, but it’s important to acknowledge there are other factors as well. Going outdoors and being in an open space is good for our mental health, as is feeling a sense of achievement, a sense of completing a goal. There are some important biopsychosocial mechanisms that make us feel good when we have run as well, so it’s a complex interplay of many of these mechanisms.
Is it better to run outside than on a treadmill?
All movement is good, particularly when you’re putting a demand on the body. So running indoors is good, but there are studies showing there is an added benefit to being outdoors. And outside of running there is evidence of mental health benefits from just being outdoors.
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How much running do you need to do to get the benefits?
The key message is that for people who are not running, just getting started is really important. Through a few minutes of running and building up gradually, you can start to experience those benefits. For instance some brain imaging studies have shown that within just ten minutes of doing light, gentle jogging you can get the rapid electrical activity in the hippocampus, giving you some real mental health benefits.
For people who are already running there are continued benefits going up in a linear fashion from 30 minutes to about 300 minutes a week, where we believe the mental health benefits start to plateau.
Can running be used to both prevent and treat mental health problems?
Yes, both. We did a study published in 2018 looking at 260,000 people all over the world. We looked at physical activity including running in people who were free from any mental health condition as a baseline. We followed them over an average of 7.5 years, and what we found was that the most active were around 15% less likely to develop depression than the least active. When people did 150 minutes of moderate and vigorous activity a week, the risk of depression was reduced in the future by around 30%.
To add to that, there have been large genetic studies looking at people who are genetically predisposed to depression. If you engage those people in physical activity, even though they have a genetic predisposition you can reduce their risk of developing depression. We’ve done similar work on anxiety, and how running and exercise can help prevent it developing in the future.
On the treatment and management side, I led European guidelines to make recommendations for the treatment of recognised mental health conditions. We looked at all of the best available evidence to make recommendations for the clinical care of people with mental health conditions across Europe. We made a strong recommendation that for people who are presenting with mild to moderate depression, exercise and physical activity should be a frontline treatment. There is very good evidence that as a treatment on its own, compared with the usual care, you can get meaningful reductions in people’s depression symptoms.
There are also a small number of studies that have directly compared exercise versus antidepressants or psychological therapies such as CBT. We have to be cautious interpreting these, because there are only a few studies, but broadly there seems to be no real difference between these treatments in mild to moderate depression. If somebody has more severe depression you may need other additional treatments as well, such as medication or psychotherapy.
Are there extra benefits if you run with other people?
Absolutely. Not only in terms of the mental health benefits, but also in terms of engagement. Whenever we engage in activity such as running, it’s important that we do it for the long term, so we get the long-term physical and mental benefits. One of the key factors that influence people doing anything in the long term is a sense of social cohesion. So running activities that involve groups and have a social aspect have been shown to have more favourable outcomes in the long term. If you look at interventions and studies that have done randomised control trials, group-based interventions tend to have better mental health outcomes as well.
Clearly not everybody wants to run in a group – if you want to run on your own, of course that’s OK too – but on average group-based interventions appear to have an added benefit due to that social aspect.
Can you get similar benefits from other types of exercise?
Broadly we define physical activity as any movement that increases energy expenditure. There are really good mental health benefits from just brisk walking, and we’ve often neglected the importance of light physical activity. If you’re unable to run, other activities like cycling or swimming have mental health benefits as well. And for some people who may prefer resistance training, like lifting weights, there is really good evidence that this can also have benefits in terms of preventing you from developing depression and anxiety, and could also be used as a treatment.
We broadly think that all types of movement are good. It’s up to the individual to find something they enjoy, and then keep doing it, because you’re much more likely to engage and maintain a behaviour – be it running or going to the gym – if you enjoy it.
Moving Minds Measured
New research overseen by Stubbs on a small group of elite and everyday athletes produced some startling improvements in brain activity after just 20 minutes of running. The everyday athletes saw an improvement of up to 29% in their ability to deal with stress and an% increase of up to 18% in relaxation levels. There was also a drop of up to 135% in their frustration levels, and they became less prone to making rash decisions.
“What’s really exciting about this is that we’ve been able to use robust EEG [electroencephalogram] electrical activity data among this sample of elite athletes and everyday athletes to understand what actually changes within the brain,” says Stubbs. “A lot of the previous measures that have captured changes in frustration and the other metrics have overwhelmingly relied on self-reporting – asking people questions to understand how they feel after running. Those are valid but what’s really exciting about this is that it’s not just asking someone, it’s looking specifically at different types of activity within the brain, to demonstrate what is actually changing.”
You can find out more in our interview with Stubbs.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.