If you’ve ever experienced that almost Zen sense of calm just after a workout, you understand the positive effects exercise can have on your mental health.
By now, most people know about the physical health benefits achievable through running and other fitness activities. But in these mentally and emotionally taxing times, it’s more important than ever to understand how exercise can help control the stress and anxiety we feel in response.
“It may seem counterintuitive that exercise, a form of physical stress, can help the body manage general stress levels,” notes the American Psychological Association. “But the right kind of stress can actually make the body more resilient. Many experts believe routine exercise is as powerful in treating anxiety and mood disorders as antidepressants.”
Licensed psychologist and coach for women’s running program Moms on the Run Anshan Moore Eckard stresses the importance of channeling our stress into healthy avenues when life starts to seem overwhelming.
“It is really important to focus on the things we can control,” she says. “Right now, that is what we do in our own lives and in our own homes, continuing to do the things we know work (exercise, healthy eating habits, good quality and adequate sleep, staying connected with friends and loved ones), and letting go of the things that don’t. I encourage people to focus on what opportunities may lie during this time.”
Because running is easy to do, requires no specialized equipment and can be done inside or out, it can be one of the most efficient and effective methods of protecting ourselves from stress and anxiety. Here are key facts to know about running and stress relief.
1. Running releases endorphins. The feel-good neurotransmitters interact with your brain to reduce perceived pain and trigger positive feelings that can mimic the effects of morphine.
2. Group running can promote social wellness. Positive interactions with others can help us feel better about ourselves and ward off depression. That’s one advantage of supportive group running programs like Moms on the Run, which bring together like-minded women who want to initiate or improve running skills while having fun at the same time. MOTR members often use their workout time to catch up on each other’s lives, vent about their daily challenges and support each other’s fitness journeys. Others prefer to run safely and quietly with their groups while listening to music or inspirational podcasts, concentrating on moving, breathing and sweating as a way of releasing the day’s concerns.
3. Running need not be time-consuming. Most people can obtain significant relief from anxiety by running five times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes each time. Frequent runs are more important to your mental health than long runs, though both can be beneficial.
4. Running teaches our bodies to handle stress. Because strenuous activity mimics the bodily responses produced by anxiety, it shows our bodies how to manage anxiety without getting overwhelmed, according to the APA report.
5. Running can improve our sleep. Studies suggest running and other regular exercise can help produce healthier, more restful sleep and reduce insomnia, leaving you more able to cope with life demands in the daytime.
6. Running provides a sense of accomplishment. The discipline and routine of running can act as a form of self-care by raising our confidence and giving us a sense of control in an uncertain world. “Prioritizing self-care practices like exercise can result in a cascade effect of other healthy habits, like eating nutritiously, socializing with others and getting a good night’s sleep,” reports the APA. “All that can improve depression symptoms.”
Ask the fitness specialists at Moms on the Run how a structured running program can help reduce your stress and anxiety. The nationally franchised program for women of all ages and abilities — not just moms — offers year-round training formats, including virtual services during COVID.