Gotta Run: How does running help depression?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 18, 2021

I got an email a few nights ago asking me to address how running or exercise can help depression. I immediately thought that any day without running lessens my mood and on the days I run, nothing seems to get me down.

Running reduces depression symptoms in several ways. General benefits include exposure to sunlight, introduction to new social groups, and by providing an outlet for restless energy. Many of these benefits can be gained through other forms of exercise, but running goes a little farther.

Please note that running is not a cure for depression. If someone is seeing a therapist or taking antidepressants, running is not a replacement, but these tools can be used together. Stopping or reducing medications should only be done under the supervision of a doctor.

A “cage” is the term many people use when describing their depression. Depression makes it hard to reach out for social connection, get on your feet, or even to leave the house. Most usable energy is replaced by a nervous, jittery energy that only makes things harder. Running offers relief from all of these symptoms.

Non-runners often view the sport as lonely or isolated. Runners know the truth. Whether a runner has a dedicated workout buddy, a local circle they meet up with, or see people at races, running is a social sport. And runners love to talk about running. Those who suffer from depression may find their usual friend groups exhausting. Running or exercise as a shared goal and focus pulls a new group in.

Scientists are starting to really look at the link between nature and mental health. Depression robs people of their motivation. It can also make the world overwhelming. This one-two punch usually causes sufferers to close themselves off.

When these people run outside, however, their atmosphere changes. They’re exposed to sunlight, fresh air, and the general effect nature has on the human brain. Multiple studies prove that exposure to nature can boost a person’s mood temporarily. Combined with running’s other benefits, this mood boost can help break the mental cycles of depression.

Depression robs people of their motivation and often causes them to experience nervous energy. Their bodies feel jittery and their pulses race for no reason. They can’t keep their minds quiet, while they have nothing specific to use this energy on. Running provides a great outlet for nervous energy.

Runners with depression often report that running allows them to focus on one specific goal and quiet their thoughts. They often work through recurring problems while on their run as well, which can alleviate that nervous energy over the long term. Runs can also happen almost anywhere, a healthy release whenever needed.

Running’s effects run much deeper, however. Recent studies show that running stimulates certain parts of the brain while creating new connections in other parts. The affected areas of the brain happen to be those hit hardest by depression, the frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Depression causes problems for both of these areas. Running helps counter that damage and, in some cases, may even help repair it.

Decision-making and reasoning happen in the frontal cortex. When someone suffers from depression, they usually have reduced activity in their frontal cortex. This is the most likely reason for the uncertainty and constant worry that comes with depression.

Most runners report finding new solutions while on a run. Scientists believe this happens because of the way running stimulates the frontal cortex. It also helps that their thought patterns are interrupted by the mechanics of a run. This leads to new thought processes and, in time, reduced stress.

The two most common symptoms of depression are a lack of motivation and the inability to concentrate. Both behaviors are controlled by the hippocampus. When scientists performed brain scans on people with depression, they found that most people with depression also have a shrunken hippocampus, the most likely reason for depression’s effect on motivation and concentration.

Running, on the other hand, creates new neurons in the hippocampus. Some studies have even shown that running can help enlarge a shrunken hippocampus in as little as six months. This is part of the reason that increased exercise is the first line of depression treatment in many countries.

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