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Here's How To Use Running To Improve Your Mental Health

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Now more than ever, people are exercising for their mental health—which, needless to say, is incredible. Too often we see exercise as something we do to boost our physical health, but the psychological effects of working out are unparalleled. Exercise can help combat depression, anxiety, stress, and improve nearly every process in our body. In his book Running Is My Therapy, Scott Douglas reflects on his journey as a runner, and details the profound, positive impact running has had on his mental health and psyche. Here, he explains how we too can use running to manage our mental health.

Any run is better than no run when it comes to short-term mood improvement or long-term help with depression and anxiety. But some runs are more effective than others. Here's some brief guidance on how best to get a post-run boost.

Avoid all-or-nothing thinking—remember, the best run is the one you do.

Most studies find significant mood boosts after 30 minutes of running. Improvements in mood tend to last longer after longer runs. But a 20-minute run is much closer to a 90-minute run than it is to not running. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking about duration and distance, such as that a "real" run has to be at least 5 miles long or it's not worth doing. The most important step on any day is the first one, the one that gets you out the door. On tough mental days, start your run with a flexible route that you can shorten or lengthen as feels best.

Run at whatever pace you need to.

Research has found the greatest increase in get-happy brain chemicals following moderate-intensity workouts. In running terms, that's your basic getting-in-the-miles effort at a conversational pace. But there's more to mood than brain chemical levels. Pushing yourself through a hard workout provides a needed sense of setting and accomplishing a goal. At the other end of the spectrum, give yourself permission to run as slowly as you want on especially tough mental days. Again, the most important thing about any one run is that it happens.

Run outside whenever possible, and pick interesting routes.

People usually report better mood improvement (more tranquillity, greater reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression) when running in natural settings compared with populated human-made environments. Of course, schedules and geography usually get in the way of regularly running through paradise. Choose visually interesting routes with minimal traffic as often as possible. When time allows, make an effort to run in beautiful settings for an above-and-beyond boost.

Have a designated running time that you can stick to.

Plan to run whenever you're most likely to actually run most of the time. Many runners with depression and anxiety especially value morning runs because they set a positive tone and provide an example of success for the rest of the day.

Think about what you need from your run, and decide to go solo or with a friend.

Assuming you have options on whether to run solo or with others, opt for whichever setup feels right for the day. Running by yourself can work best when you need to think through an issue with the help of that special on-the-run clarity. A solo run before or after a hectic day will probably also be more calming. Run with others when you need a break from your internal monologue or would benefit from talking through things with trusted friends. And if you're struggling to activate, schedule runs with others to increase the chances of getting out the door.

Regularly mixing up all of the above variables should keep your running more interesting, which will make consistently going for runs more likely, which will mean greater mental health benefits. Having runs of different length, intensity, and setting within each week also helps free you from the common thinking trap that all your days are the same.

Adapted and reprinted from Running Is My Therapy, by Scott Douglas. Running Is My Therapy is available wherever books and e-books are sold.

Scott Douglas

Scott Douglas is a contributing writer for Runner’s World. He has also been the editor of Running Times and Runner’s World’s news channel. Scott has written or cowritten several other books, including the New York Times bestseller Meb for Mortals, 26 Marathons, and perennial favorite Advanced Marathoning. He has run more than 110,000 miles since taking up the sport in 1979. Scott lives in South Portland, Maine.