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Scott Douglas started running at age 15, right around the same time he began noticing a chronic, low-level state of depression, though he didn’t have a name for it at the time. While he couldn’t articulate it, he noticed that running had a positive impact on how he felt emotionally. The sport gave him something to look forward to, lifted his spirits while he was out there and left him feeling better after.
Today, at age 55, the freelance writer and author of several books—including Running is My Therapy—knows there are real connections between running and happiness. But it took some time to come to that realization, especially since when he was younger, there wasn’t nearly as much attention given to mental illness and the impact that exercise can have on it.
“In college, I joined the cross-country team as a freshman but was the slowest one on the team, and I quit to go find myself,” he said. “But even though I wasn’t racing, I recognized that I wanted to continue to run, chiefly because of how it made me feel.”
Finally seeing a psychiatrist in the ’90s, Douglas received a diagnosis of a specific kind of depression called dysthymia. By luck, his psychiatrist was also a runner who could appreciate the benefits Douglas experienced through the sport. Douglas takes medication for his depression, but running has had a major impact on his mental health over the years. “Running helps me to get away from the negative thoughts and that carries over into all areas of my life in a positive way,” he said.
Like Douglas, Kerri Dellisanti, 44, sees a big difference in her mood when she’s running consistently. In the winter when conditions are particularly dark and dreary, Dellisanti—who lives in Washington state—credits running with keeping her afloat emotionally. “I get out several times a week, even if it’s raining and I don’t necessarily want to go out the door,” she said. “I come home feeling much more ready to face my day.”
A mother of three, Dellisanti took breaks from consistent training after delivering each child. That’s when she really began to appreciate the mind-body connection running provides. “I realized I felt very low without regular running,” she said. “I need that outlet or I struggle. I’m shorter with my kids and down in the dumps.”
While her preference is to head out in the morning, Dellisanti’s family schedule sometimes prevents that. In those cases, lunchtime is her chance to run. “I look forward to it all morning and when I come back, I’m more productive and ready to handle the rest of the day,” she said.
Hunting and gathering
Douglas and Dellisanti’s experiences with the therapeutic benefits of running are backed by burgeoning research on the subject. Subject matter experts, of course, advise working with your doctor to come up with a medical treatment plan that works for you. But, in some cases of low-level depression, in fact, exercise has been proven as effective as medication. In a country where one in 10 adults struggle with depression, this is a key finding. Running, in particular, may hit that sweet spot that brings on the feel-good neurotransmitters—leading to the so-called “runner’s high”—to bring on measurable differences.
But what is it about running that serves up the right dose of mood-boosting chemicals? Some of it may be tied to evolution. Runner and University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen hypothesized and tested his theory that humans are wired to be an active, long-distance species. “We looked at runners, dogs and ferrets,” he said. “The humans and dogs, who have evolved to run distances, produced endocannabinoids in their brains. The ferrets did not.”
Not unlike the cannabinoids in marijuana, those endocannabinoids our brain produces generate both a reduction in pain and a mood-boosting response. “Its adaptive purpose is as a motivator,” said Raichlen. “It makes you feel good so that you want to do it. The underlying result is that it leads to feelings of well-being in most people.”
Figuring out the right “dosage” of running to improve mood and mental health is somewhat individualized and dependent on your fitness level. “The duration and frequency needed is unclear,” said Raichlen. “The fitter you are, the longer it may take.”
The right intensity level, however, is likely right in the moderate range. A 2012 German study of the impact of ultrarunning on the brain revealed that the athletes in the 3,000-mile TransEurope Footrace experienced a reduction in gray matter—neural tissue that helps promote connections in the brain—of 6 percent following the effort. Even with that extreme effort, however, the participants’ brains returned to normal after eight months.
For the rest of the running world, finding a middle ground on intensity and duration likely provides the most success. “We found that moderate intensity elicited positive response, but low and high intensities do not,” said Raichlen.
Other research has shown that just 30 minutes of running can improve “executive function” in the brain. This is the brain’s ability to focus and tune out distractions. This can be valuable in quieting the brain’s “default mode” of mind wandering and negative self-generated thoughts, which has potential links to clinical depression.
Raichlen also studied how running impacts the brain compared to meditation—fairly similarly, it turns out. As you move along on a run, you begin to tune into the present, shutting out that default mode and becoming more mindful. As with meditation, the payoff here is that stress goes down as your body clears itself of enzymes that are linked to mental health challenges.
In writing his book, Douglas also found that there’s a cumulative positive effect to running regularly. “When we go out and run, we feel better,” he said. “But what’s not talked about is that over time, running will lead to structural changes in the brain in the form of hippocampus growth.” This is beneficial because research has shown that the hippocampus plays a role in mood; a smaller hippocampus may be tied to depressive symptoms and a larger one can have the opposite effect.
Reaping the benefits
While the links between running and mental health are increasingly clear, it is uncertain if you need to be outside versus, say, on a treadmill to reap the benefits. “On an anecdotal level, I know the only way I personally get satisfaction on the treadmill is if I do high-intensity work aimed at achieving a goal,” said Raichlen. “But our studies were conducted on treadmills, so that would suggest there is benefit either way.”
Still, there are bodies of research that support “nature therapy,” the value of being outside and in natural surroundings. A 2019 study out of New Zealand, in fact, showed that running on trails can be superior to running on roads in this regard. It found that off-road running “is a physically skilled, back-to-nature activity, that is useful for managing the pressures of modern life and the unnaturalness of built environments.”
Dellisanti added that running on trails makes a difference for her. “Getting out into the woods is helpful for me,” she said.
In spite of all the good news about running and emotional well-being, Raichlen and Douglas caution that it shouldn’t be considered a panacea in most cases. “In our society, we want to find the silver bullet, and that’s not reality,” said Raichlen. “Mental health hedges on a combination of factors, including genetics and environment.”
From a public health standpoint, Raichlen is a fan of running. “One of the best things people can do for their mental health is exercise,” he said. “We know it has benefits and fewer side effects than medication.” Douglas agreed. “I want to eagerly encourage people to run for many reasons,” he said. “Mental health being one of the biggest.”
For advice about how to run close to home during social distancing, read our current coverage.