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Running Can Help Improve Mood and Lower Stress

Many people first get into running for the physical benefits – weight loss, improved cardiac fitness, and stronger muscles. But there are incredible mental benefits to running as well. In fact, one could say it was a form of therapy!


Depression, anxiety and stress are on the rise. The NIMH estimates that in the United States, 16 million adults have suffered from at least one depressive episode in the past year - that's 6.9% of the population! More than 18 million of us are afflicted with anxiety.

Clinical depression is treatable. The most common methods are antidepressant medication and psychological counseling. Most of the time, a combination of both is recommended. But notably, these strategies take time. And too many people give up on one or the other because of medication side effects or failure to comply with counseling sessions.

More doctors should promote exercise for well-being

When you have depression or anxiety, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. But once you get motivated to just get out there – even if only for a few minutes - exercise can make a huge difference.

There are several ways that exercise can help improve your mood and outlook on life. Biologically, the body releases endorphins that enhance your sense of well-being. I’m sure you’ve heard of runner’s high!

Exercise also gives you space to take your mind off of your worries that feed the cycle of negative thoughts that occur when you are depressed or anxious. Even just a 30 minute walk outside can have a big impact on clearing your mind of these negative thoughts.

Running also promotes self-confidence. Low self-esteem is a contributing factor to depression and anxiety. Accomplishments – no matter how small – really help to boost self confidence. Personally, when I cross a finish line at the end of a race that I have trained hard for – there is no better feeling! I have learned that when I put my mind to something, my body can accomplish great things.

Recently I have joined a running group that has helped me tremendously. I suffer from both social anxiety and chronic depression, so this was a really big hurdle for me. But once I did, I have found a group of people who I can truly call friends. We encourage each other both during and after runs. We call each other in the middle of the week just to check in. A group of running buddies not only keep you accountable to a training schedule, but also encourage you when the mental side of running really takes its toll.

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Even if you aren’t a “group” kind of person, take your exercise to a place where there are many like-minded people. At the gym, you can work out on your own, but still be around friendly and helpful people. At the local park, I am always greeted with a wave and a smile which boosts my mood immediately.
Running can also be a form of self-therapy. William Pullen, a psychotherapist who practices integrative therapy, has written a book called “Running with Mindfulness – Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT) to Improve Low-Mood, Anxiety, Stress and Depression.” While the method is called “running” therapy, Dr. Pullen says that you can use these techniques with any form of exercise that is right for you – walking, cycling, swimming all come to mind.

Five Key Steps toward Moving Mindfulness

While you are running, walking, or hiking (or any exercise of choice), remember the following to be completely mindful and achieve the benefits of dynamic therapy:

1. Make room for your feelings: As you move, you may reconnect with feelings that you have held deep down. I first started running when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. During one of my first runs, a breeze came across me just when I needed it most (my dad passed away in summer). I felt like that was him telling me something – and I broke out in tears. After that release of emotion, I felt so much better. Dr. Pullen calls this “emotion in motion” and it can be very powerful – but emotionally cleansing.

2. Work at your own pace: If you are a runner, you most likely are (or have) compared yourself to others. You do not have to be fast. You do not have to “beat” anyone to feel accomplishment. The only one you need to challenge is yourself. With exercise – find your baseline. If you struggle with walking a full mile, set that as a goal and work toward it by first tackling a quarter mile, then half. Before you know it, that mile will seem easy and you will be ready for the next challenge.

3. Listen to your body: During my group runs, we often talk about a “body scan.” Always remember that your mind will want to give up before your body so take a few minutes to do a scan. Are you breathing ok? Obviously, stop if you are feeling short of breath. Does anything hurt? If you are challenging yourself with exercise, your muscles are obviously going to be sore and may even revolt a little! But are you in pain – then you need to stop. Remember to not only listen to the “bad” signs, but there are good signs to look for as well. Do you feel like you have a surge of energy? Do you feel like a weight is being lifted? And it is okay to be in the middle too – accept your body for what it is accomplishing right now, because it is amazing if you allow it to be.

4. Be mindful of your movement: Often when we are tired during a walk or run, we begin to drag our legs and slump our shoulders. This actually makes the task harder, not easier. Be aware of your shoulders up and high (but relaxed, not up next to your ears!), your feet coming off the ground and legs moving forward. Swing your arms a little and feel the confidence! Relate that to your life – during the work day, do you slump at your desk, feeling exhausted? Or do you sit up straight, feel the energy of the work around you, and the great feeling of accomplishment when you are done with a good day?

5. Don’t strive too hard: Yes, you should be up for a challenge. You should try to accomplish more today than yesterday. But don’t add stress to something that should be enjoyable. If you run two miles today, don’t stress that you didn’t run three. Bask in the accomplishment of two. If you have a bad run – and we all have had bad runs – learn from it and move on. Don't beat yourself up. Find your best pace, your best self and stay present in this moment – not stressing about the past or worrying about the future.

Running for Mindfulness is available in several forms, including paperback, Kindle, and audiobook. The paperback has room for notes, so that you can determine your personal challenges and set goals to accomplish great things. As of this writing, Amazon readers have given the book 5-stars and have raved about it! For less than $15, it is a great investment for your mental health.

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of the book Running for Mindfulness for this review.