The holidays are a hectic time of year. You may feel like you're going a mile a minute, from navigating family expectations and work demands to running errands within the daunting era of COVID-19.
This year, holiday gatherings are exchanged for new forms of pandemic-related stress. Runners respond to this “festive stress” by either putting their training on the back burner and ceding to other priorities, or redoubling their efforts and continuing to pound the pavement.
Research suggests you’re better off taking the latter approach. One study found that exercise helps to weaken the impact of stressful events and promotes well-being. Other research suggests that after working out we tend to react to things with less anxiety, even when confronted with stressful events.
If that’s not enough motivation to hit the road, here are five ways running can help you slay stress any time of the year:
For most people, stress is inevitable. Whether you are searching for a new job orcaring for your kids as you work from home, it's important to have a healthy outlet. Research conducted at the University of Liverpool suggests that exercise, “recruits a process which confers enduring resilience to stress.” While we can’t avoid the events that sometimes induce stress and anxiety, running can help us become less emotionally reactive in the face of increased demands.
Not only do studies show that running improves sleep, but we also know that sleep improves running. A by-product of this process is, yes, you guessed it: a reduction in stress. When you don’t get enough sleep, the brain doesn’t get the chance to rest and recharge. Research shows that this affects not only our mental and physical wellbeing, but also your overall happiness. Quality shut-eye is essential when it comes to keeping you on an even keel through stressful times.
When you run, your body releases a cocktail of chemicals including endocannabinoids, serotonin and dopamine. These feel-good chemicals improve mood and decrease your perception of pain and discomfort. The holidays are notorious for bringing out a whole host of emotions, so doing something to prompt the release of these mood-boosting chemicals can help fortify your resolve in the face of stress.
Not only can running help you deal with anxiety when it inevitably arises, it can effectively rewire your brain’s response to stress. In a Venezuelan study, researchers compared the neural signals of running rodents to non-running rodents in response to a stressful event. While they saw a significant uptick in the gene markers associated with anxiety in the non-running mice, they didn’t in the runners. The latter group also displayed calmer behavior following the stressful stimuli.
Nobody wants to get sick right now. While an intensely heavy training load can slightly lower immune function, moderate levels of cardiovascular exercise actually give your system a boost, reducing your risk of catching a bug. Unless you are already sick, heading out for a jog is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy year-round.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published November 16, 2018 and was updated December 15, 2020.
By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie lives and works in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter. When she’s not typing, she’s hitting the trails on foot, on a bike or on skis.