Six Ways Running and Walking Benefit Your Mental Health

A woman runs alone on a beach in a pink New Balance top

By Caroline Bell. Caroline has been running competitively since high school. When she’s not writing for the Fleet Feet journal or training for her next race, you can find her looking at cat pictures on Instagram. She lives in Florida with her cat, Jade.

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?

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. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ve detailed six ways running and walking benefit your mental health.

Endorphins

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

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

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 myth exists in the running world that, to be a successful runner, you need to have a certain body type. Images of elite runners with toned abs and taut muscles are constantly plastered on magazine covers and social media feeds. 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.

Whether you’re a seasoned runner or you’ve just started walking, there are plenty of great reasons to keep moving. If you’re interested in the physical benefits of running, check out our article “8 Ways That Running Improves Your Health.” You may be surprised to see that some of the mental and physical benefits of running and walking overlap. 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.

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