Can Running Help to Reduce Anxiety?

We explore the link between running, stress, and anxiety.

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You already know running can help you lose weight and prevent disease—but it can also serve as a healthy way to manage stress and maybe even anxiety. With each run, your body releases feel-good endorphins, improves your mood, and boosts self-confidence. It also distracts your mind from any spiraling negative thoughts, allows you to confront difficult emotions. Plus, running simply gives you something to feel good about.

Here are five reasons why adding running to your workout routine may help reduce anxiety.

Note: If you suffer from anxiety, consult with your doctor or a mental health professional before starting any exercise regime.

Running helps you relax.

Negative thoughts involve two areas of your brain: the prefrontal cortex, which controls attention and focus, and the hippocampus, which promotes learning and memory. Physical activity has been shown to encourage the growth of new brain cells. And the simultaneous release of endorphins can help ease anxious feelings, too.

“Running can help to reduce the feelings of anxiety and clear space in your head,” says Aaptiv trainer Jaime McFaden. “I have clients with anxiety who have felt a great sense of calm through running.”

The physical stress of exercise blocks pain signals in the body, prompts an influx of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, and basically reorganizes your brain.

“I find running to be an uninterrupted way to clear your head and sort through your thoughts,” says Aaptiv trainer Jennifer Giamo. “Sometimes just expending nervous energy can also make you feel more relaxed, and many of my running clients say it helps them reduce stress or manage it better.”

Running can be a healthy coping mechanism.

When stress hits, most people reach for unhealthy fixes: a stiff drink, comfort food, or hours of television. Of course, those choices aren’t inherently bad at all. Running, though, can lift your mood in a similar way, while also giving you a mental and physical escape from stressful situations.

“I personally run to calm my own stress more than for the typical reasons of exercise,” says McFaden. “Before becoming a personal trainer, I battled with depression after my father passed away. Exercise became the best solution for me. That was 12 years ago. I have never felt depressed or anxious since then, and I attribute that to a healthy lifestyle.”

Getting outside might provide the most bang for your buck. One study of outdoor walkers reported a decrease in anxious, ruminating thoughts. Their brain scans also showed decreased neural activity in the part of the brain associated with mental illness.

That said, be sure to also find other ways to manage your anxiety, too. Too much running could potentially lead to overexercising. “Anxiety can also make you feel compelled to work out, or work out for longer than normal,” says psychotherapist Greta Angert, M.S., LMFT.

It’s entirely possible your anxiety symptoms will persist despite regular exercise. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional to find the best options and outlets for you.

Your “fight-or-flight” skills improve.

People who experience anxiety often talk about common symptoms, such as sweating and increased heart rate. These are similar to the types of physical reactions produced by the body during exercise. Some researchers view working out as a form of “exposure treatment,” where individuals prone to anxiety can practice reacting to fight-or-flight sensations. In other words, running can help biologically “toughen up” your brain.

Another study suggests runners are simply less susceptible to stress. Runners can better observe negative feelings that pop up, and then find a way to quell them.

You can practice intentional breathing.

Meditation is known to make exercise more effective, and intentional breathing plays a critical role. No surprise, then, that running can also help lower stress levels because of its emphasis on proper breathwork. McFaden says breathing is the most fundamental element to running, and also to calming an anxious mind.

“Running can help with anxiety, which can include symptoms like difficulty sleeping, racing intrusive thoughts, and uncomfortable body sensations, such as stomach problems, headaches, or issues with focus,” says Angert. “Focusing on one’s breath is very effective, and I work with clients who utilize exercise in general as a supplement to therapy and/or medication.”

You’re part of the running community.

Anxiety can cause some people to feel alone. As a runner, though, you’re already part of a big community. Making connections with other runners can equip you with like-minded individuals willing to support you with each run or race. Find a local running buddy, join a running group, or check out the Aaptiv Facebook page for more motivation—and a sense of togetherness.

Again, running is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or medical advice. But it can certainly function as a great way to ease symptoms of stress and/or anxiety. It’s a good place to start.

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