What to Know About Running and Depression

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 29, 2021

Researchers and practitioners have established that aerobic exercises like running can work like anti-depressants. The relationship between running and mental health helps treat cases of mild to moderate depression. You will also benefit from the effects of running, which include weight management and improved health.

Impact of Running on Your Mental Health

Running will not make depression disappear overnight but it helps you manage the symptoms. When you hit the road to jog, you build muscle, improve your heart health and take care of your brain. This activity may bring back a sense of hope that you may have lost.

As you run, your heart beats faster to pump blood through the body. The breathing system responds by working harder, and the brain prepares for the hard work. As a result, it releases endorphins, which are hormones that cause what many people call a “natural high” or a feel-good sensation. This state creates a mental effect that helps you deal with depression and improves your mental health. 

It changes your way of thinking. When you have depression, life often feels like an uphill task. It inwardly masks your excitement about things you should be happy about. The condition also increases your feelings of distress, fatigue, and anxiety. Running has a way of making your brain process situations differently. As you run, you allow thoughts to come in and out of your mind easily, and you don’t feel worried. You realize that the things you thought are a big deal are not. The more focused you are on the running activity, the more it is effective in lifting your mind from depression.

Helps with stress management. Running helps the body deal with existing mental tension. As you run, the body releases norepinephrine, a chemical that moderates your brain’s response to stress. It increases your sense of well-being by pumping endorphins into your body’s system.

Running is meditation in motion. You may realize that you quickly forget the day's irritations and only concentrate on your body's movements. As you continue with regular running sessions, you'll be able to focus better on one thing at a time. This leads to bursts of energy and optimism that helps you stay calm and with a clear mind.

Improves your mood. Running, just like other physical exercises, can help increase your self-confidence. When you feel good about yourself, you quickly get over feelings of doubt and hopelessness that come with depression. You also relax better allowing the symptoms of mild depression and anxiety to disappear. After a running session, you’ll find it easier to fall asleep, which is usually disrupted by depression.

Prevention of cognitive decline. For people with Alzheimer's, depression is also common. They may:

  • Feel sad and hopeless
  • Not enjoy activities they previously liked
  • Appear agitated
  • Withdraw from social connections
  • Experience trouble concentrating
  • Isolate themselves
  • Have less energy

While running doesn’t cure the condition, it helps boost the brain’s function by slowing down the decline process. It does this by stimulating the brain's chemicals that support and stop the collapse of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Boosts your brainpower. Running and other cardiovascular exercises help create new brain cells. This leads to improved brain performance. Tough levels of running increase the levels of a protein derived from the brain, which helps in higher thinking and decision-making. This also improves your productivity and creativity.

How to Make Running Work for You?

For your running program to be successful, you need to have a plan in place.

  • Talk to your doctor. If you’re worried about your health talk to your doctor. They’re in the best position to advise you on whether to begin an exercise routine.
  • Walk for warm-up. Before you start running, it's essential to build up your fitness level. While you're excited about your new program, overdoing it could do more harm than good. Remember also to stretch and do some strength training exercises.
  • Do what you love. Pick an activity you love to help you deal with depression. This could be swimming, stair climbing, dancing, yoga, jogging, or gardening.
  • Set smart goals. The best thing is to put your new exercise regime on paper. Indicate how you want the program to look like and how many days a week you wish to exercise. Penning it down will increase your commitment.
  • Find a supportive friend. If everything feels overwhelming for you, find a friend to support you with your exercise program. Knowing that someone has your back is a powerful spur.

Studies show a correlation between physical exercise and improved mental health. Running provides relief from depression symptoms but does not cure the condition. It helps you push against the tidal wave of hopelessness, sadness, and anxiety for an improved quality of life.

Show Sources


ACSMs Health Fit J: “Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?” 

Alzheimer's Association: “Depression.”

Arc Med Sci: “Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications.”

Cigna: “8 Ways Running Works Wonders for Your Mind.”

Clinical Psychology Science and Practice: "Exercise Interventions for Mental Health: A Quantitative and Qualitative Review."

Mayo Clinic: “Exercise and Stress: Get moving to manage stress.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “What’s Your Natural High?”

National Library of Medicine: “Treadmill Running Reverses Cognitive Declines due to Alzheimer Disease.”

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