How Does Running Benefit Your Mental Health?

Two runners smile.

Running and walking are great ways to get in shape and build a healthy lifestyle. Many people focus on the physical benefits of running and walking as reasons to pick up the sport. But did you know that the mental benefits are just as significant?

"Running has so many great benefits for both our physical and mental health," says Gwen Riley, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and runner. "For many, it’s a way to de-stress, identify personal goals, practice being in the present moment; the list goes on. But these benefits are not the same as processing difficult emotions, gaining insight into weaknesses, developing healthier self-talk, and learning how to better handle stressors in the moment."

Taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and there are many reasons why running and walking are great for your mind. However, it’s important to note that running and walking isn’t a cure-all for mental health issues. Read on to learn more about the ways running and walking benefit your mental health, and what to do when running isn’t enough.


You’ve probably heard of the highly sought after “runner’s high.” According to an article published in Cerebral Cortex by Henning Boecker, runner’s high is “a euphoric state resulting from long-distance running.”

The article describes how continuous exercise causes your body to release endorphins, affecting the frontal region of your brain. Endorphins interact with the opioid receptors in your brain, which decrease the perception of pain and increase feelings of pleasure. These endorphins are the reason why many people feel so good after a long run or walk.

Research shows that running and walking can also provide long-term relief for those struggling with depression. "For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn't enough for someone with severe depression," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, quoted in a 2021 article for Harvard Health Letter.

Better sleep

A woman sleeps in bed.

Sleep plays an essential role in allowing our minds and bodies to perform optimally. According to an article published by Sleep Foundation, “sufficient sleep facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information.” Research has shown that sleep and mental health are more intertwined than scientists had previously thought. If you really want to nurture your emotional health, aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Exercising regularly can help you keep a regular sleep schedule.

It’s no secret that running and walking can really wear you out. The good news is that it doesn’t take an extreme exercise regimen to improve your sleep. According to an article published in American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine by Dr. Matthew P. Buman, “moderate amounts of exercise, which can be obtained through a variety of means such as brisk walking and resistance training, are sufficient to improve sleep quality.” So, whether you’re walking a few miles each day or training for a marathon, you should notice an improvement in your ability to both fall and stay asleep.

Stress relief

Two runners on a paved  path

For many adults, there’s no better way to wind down after a long day than going for a walk or run. Hitting the pavement can be a great way to clear your mind and shake away the stress of the day.

“I like to run immediately after work, before dinner. I find I have the most energy at that time of day and it helps me transition from work mind into home mind,” says Josh Johnston, an avid runner who trains with the Fleet Feet Delray Beach Running Club.

“Going out and running hard helps me burn off anxiety and nervous energy. It also gives me an opportunity to think about what’s happening in my life and how to solve problems at work,” Johnston explains.

“I usually feel more grounded and collected after a run, even if I’m physically exhausted from it. I can’t remember a time when I finished a run and didn’t feel happy.”

Not only does running and walking provide short-term stress relief, a 2014 article concluded that “regular exercisers are more resistant to the emotional effects of acute stress.” The article, written by Emma Childs and published in Frontiers in Physiology, examined the responses to stress between individuals who did and did not exercise regularly. Participants who exercised regularly experienced less of a decline in positive affect than those who didn’t exercise.

Improved self-esteem

Running is hard. Pushing your body to tolerate discomfort is the type of challenge that helps many runners and walkers find more self assurance in their everyday lives.

Victoria Phillippi, owner and founder of Run4PRs Coaching, says that running helped her build more confidence and believe in herself.

“When I became an adult, I started to feel less confident,” Phillippi says. “The world is a big place full of opportunities, but when you’re unsure of your abilities or strengths, it’s hard to have the confidence required to make your dreams a reality. When I began running, it gave me a space to push myself daily in a small way. It felt safer to push myself through running than in real life,” she says.

Phillippi went from living a sedentary lifestyle to becoming a thirteen-time Boston Marathon qualifier. “Over time, I gained confidence in my abilities with running. That confidence began to roll over into other areas of my life. Finishing a hard run left me with the mindset that anything is possible and I can survive more than I think,” she says. “When you apply this mindset to other ventures in life, you become unstoppable.”

Body confidence

A woman wearing a sports bra for a workout on a track

"In a sport where so much scrutiny is placed on body shape and performance, it’s a slippery slope when it comes to negative, unhelpful, and even disordered thoughts and behaviors related to food," Riley says.

But, for some runners, running has actually helped them find peace with their bodies.

“Before I started running, I was super self-conscious about my body. I would never show my stomach and I would always wear loose fitting tops and bottoms,” explains Danielle Foti, a marathoner who runs with the West Boynton Road Runners. “Running has significantly improved my body image. Maybe it’s training in the heat, but running has given me the confidence to run in a sports bra and shorts without giving it a second thought.”

“It’s also totally changed the way I think about fueling. I realized, in order to fuel my body properly and achieve my goals, I had to increase my caloric intake. My body and muscles feel so much better when I’m providing them with the proper nourishment. I’ve found that I’m able to run faster and longer,” Foti says.

Running and walking can provide athletes with a necessary shift in mindset from focusing on how your body looks to how it feels. Performance based goals, like running a marathon or walking a 5k, can be more beneficial than simply trying to shed pounds.

Sharper focus and improved memory

Not only does running help you feel better, but it can actually help you think better. According to an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine, “regular cardiovascular exercise can spark growth of new blood vessels to nourish the brain. Exercise may also produce new brain cells in certain locations through a process called neurogenesis, which may lead to an overall improvement in brain performance and prevent cognitive decline.” The article also demonstrates that regular exercise can improve one’s working memory and focus.

When running isn't enough

A woman lays on a bed, looking dejected.

While walking and running are great for you, more movement isn’t a cure-all. If you think you may be struggling with your mental health, it’s important to seek help from a licensed professional.

“If running is one of the tools in your mental wellness toolkit, it’s really only one tool of many that need to be sharpened and used. Just like any tool, it has its limitations,” says Riley. “Running has so many great benefits, but these benefits are not the same as processing difficult emotions, gaining insight into weaknesses, developing healthier self-talk, and learning how to better handle stressors in the moment. Running can be a great way to facilitate some of this and so many lessons can be learned from this sport, but when it comes to mental health disorders and their treatment, running will only ever be just one piece of the puzzle.”

How and when to seek help

"Everyone, no matter who you are, will face challenges and stressors throughout their life. This is life, but this is also not synonymous with having a clinically significant, diagnosable disorder," says Riley. She advises runners to reach out for help if they’ve noticed consistent and persistent changes in their mood, sleep, appetite or concentration.

“Mental health professionals reference a specific diagnostic manual, which helps us identify whether there’s something atypical going on that needs professional treatment. For this reason, it’s best to get evaluated by a licensed professional,” she says.

Riley cautions that untreated mental health issues can not only affect overall quality of life but can also impact running performance and susceptibility to injuries.

“Seeking help from a professional can be a scary thing,” she says. “But that first step of making an appointment and going to your first appointment is often the scariest part about the entire process. Psychology Today is a great place to start looking for a therapist, since the website provides a way to not only see therapists in your local areas, but also lists a brief biography, credentials, an overview of their therapy approach, and what insurance they take and how much they charge per session.”

Keep Reading