What if, instead, the focus of running was on improving mental health? Running without pressure to perform or succeed can have a great positive impact on mood and mental well-being. You don’t need to be an athlete to be a runner. It’s common to hear that running can be a great way to relieve stress, but finding time or motivation to exercise can sometimes seem difficult, especially if you suffer from anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue. Running is also often associated with competition or weight loss, both of which can lead to stressful thoughts for some people.

What if, instead, the focus of running was on improving mental health? Running without pressure to perform or succeed can have a great positive impact on mood and mental well-being. You don’t need to be an athlete to be a runner. Check out these four reasons why:

1. You’ll Get Outside

Being outside can have a big positive impact on mental wellness. Running is a great way to get out into nature and explore the natural spaces around you.

We’ve long understood that there is a connection between being in nature and positive thoughts. Researchers from Stanford University speculated that the nature effect might be due to reducing rumination, “a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses.” Rumination is the feeling you get of being stuck in a negative thought loop, and researchers think that nature helps relieve it by providing a positive distraction from routine daily environments.

You’ll get the best effects of this perk if you run in a park or a wilderness area, but being out on the sidewalk and catching some rays can also help elevate your mood by supplementing your body’s supply of vitamin D.

2. Running Lowers Your Body’s Stress Hormones

If you’ve suffered from an anxiety attack, you know just how debilitating it can be. The feelings you experience during an anxiety attack are similar to those triggered by the “fight or flight” response.

During times of high stress, your body releases a flood of cortisol and adrenaline. This same release occurs during an anxiety attack, except the response is inappropriate for the stimulus. This explains why something that you might recognize shouldn’t be causing you anxiety can trigger an attack.

When you go for a run, your body naturally begins to release these same hormones. However, because you understand why your body is having this response — you’re intentionally stressing your body — you have more control over your response. Running helps reduce stress by lowering the amount of these hormones in your body while it’s at rest, and by stimulating your body to release these hormones during appropriate times, like when you run.

3. It Helps You Set Personal Goals

When you’re stressed out about your job, your finances, or your home life, sometimes it can be difficult to think about anything else. While it might seem difficult to work anything else into your busy schedule, it might be worth trying to find the time.

When you begin to develop a hobby, like running, it can give you a new, healthy outlet to focus on. Building a new hobby around running can be a great outlet for stress that allows you to mentally disconnect from the daily grind for a little while.

Running can be whatever you want it to — the independent nature of the sport is one of the most flexible and freeing things about it. You can choose to engage in races, or you can choose to keep your hobby to yourself. You can run on a treadmill, on a sidewalk, or on a trail. When it comes to running, the only thing that matters is that you are doing what makes you happy. You can set your own goals that are realistic for you and work towards them. The feelings of growth and positivity that come from meeting your personal goals can do wonders for your mindset.

4. Running Motivates You to Make Time for Yourself

When was the last time you did something just because you wanted to? If you have a hard time answering that question, now might be the time to do just that.

One of the best mood-boosting elements of running is that it’s an investment in self-care. When you’re stressed out or feeling low, you might have a ritual or routine you like to follow to help you feel better, like a bubble bath, or maybe time working on a favorite project. Running is also self-care — it’s an hour you take from your day that’s dedicated to doing something you want to do, just for yourself. It’s an affirmation that you are important, valuable, and deserving of time.

If you can’t run every day, don’t let that scare you away. The most important thing about picking up the sport is that you’re consistent but also realistic about the expectations you have for yourself. Don’t feel pressure, and if you do, just remember that it is your choice to run!

Getting Started

If you’re ready to start running to help with your mental health, there are a few steps you can take to set yourself up for success.

It’s a good idea to invest in a decent pair of running shoes. This is really the only piece of gear you need to start running, and even if you find that you don’t want to keep up the sport, in the long run, they can be easily repurposed. An armband for your phone can come in handy, as well — try an inexpensive one before investing in something really nice, if you’re just starting out.

Before you begin a training plan or schedule or any kind, try running without a goal. Give yourself a generous window of time and do as you please on your run. If you plan to exercise outside, try freely exploring the area you’d like to run in. If you’re on the treadmill, listen to music and try testing out some speeds and see where you’re comfortable, or see how long you can run continuously. If it’s not long, that’s okay! We all start off somewhere, and there is no one you need to impress.

If you start off with a strict training program and it turns out not to be a good fit for you, you may begin to dislike running without having a real chance to figure out your own rhythm. There is no right or wrong way to run, as long as you are taking steps to avoid injury. Consistency will come more easily with time and practice — in the beginning, don’t feel a lot of pressure to be super consistent.

As you begin to fall into a regular routine, if you find that you’re starting to think of your running hour as an annoyance, reevaluate your stance on the activity. Are you too focused on training for a race? Is the main reason you’re lacing up your trainers the number on the scale? Focusing on things besides running for the sake of your own mental well being and a desire to do good for yourself can start to make your jog feel like a chore.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in shape, a fast runner, or you’ve won a race — what does matter is that you enjoy the run and reap the mental health benefits.

Photo by Tikkho Maciel on Unsplash