Mental Wellness: Could Running Improve More than Your Physical Health?

While it’s well known that exercise has a myriad of positive effects on people’s physical health, many believe it can greatly improve mental wellness as well.

Written by Lucas Collins
Edited by Pavlína Marek

A daily jog or gym routine can often leave you sore and exhausted, however, it can also bring an undeniable feeling of satisfaction. It makes sense–you’ve taken another step towards a happier and healthier you. But these feelings could go beyond just “good vibes,” according to research conducted by scientists at the University of Potsdam in Germany. For example, exercise could be a key component of managing symptoms of depression.

How Much Good Can Exercise Do for Your Mental Wellness?

The study pooled data from 41 sources with over 2,500 participants in total. According to Andreas Heissel who led the research, it showed a significant decrease in depression symptoms in people who incorporated at least some form of exercise into their life. As of now, exercise is not an official treatment for depression or its symptoms but Heissel says it could be just as good as therapy and medication at treating the condition. According to him, the results were significant enough; experts could soon regularly prescribe exercise for those suffering from depression. Not just as a supplement to medication, but as a primary way to combat it.

The idea of exercise being able to treat depression as well as therapy or medications might sound too good to be true. However, the results of this study seem promising, especially for those who don’t have access to medication or quality therapy services. Whether exercise replaces medication in the future or not, it’s a great way to support your mental wellness.

Can Exercise REALLY Beat Medicine?

Some experts, both individuals and whole organizations, say the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to endorse exercise as an optional treatment. The World Health Organization recommends exercise as an add-on to existing treatments, but not as a primary one. The American Psychological Association doesn’t even mention it when discussing treatment options. Lack of clear clinical evidence is usually cited as the reason why exercise is recommended only as a supplemental treatment, if at all.

It has been known for a long time now that exercise can help prevent people from developing depression. It’s not hard to find thousands of people on social media who use exercise to feel better about themselves for reasons far beyond looking good. Many talk about the amazing benefits exercise has on their mental wellness. On Instagram alone, #exerciseismedicine has over 500,000 posts, and #exerciseformentalhealth has over 100,000. Even without scientific guidelines, people have found that exercise improves their lives.

How Much Exercise Do You Need to See an Improvement in Your Mental Wellness?

A young family running with a stroller, berkeley trails for running with a stroller
The good news is that you don’t have to recenter your life around exercise in order to see the benefits. Studies show that any amount of exercise will help alleviate the symptoms of depression. Everything from outdoor hobbies and walks in the park to running in the morning makes a difference.

The amount of time invested into these activities doesn’t have to be extreme, either. Even 10 to 15 minutes of exercise once or twice a week can help you see huge improvements. You don’t have to start doing hill sprints and lifting heavy weights to see results. With the barrier for entry being so low, it’s almost certainly worth finding out what kind of impact exercise could have.

Where is a Good Point to Start?

Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle. You don’t have to go big; the most important this is to simply start. While a traditional exercise regimen might be the most straightforward, it is by no means the only way to get exercise into your day. There are plenty of options; just choose from the endless list of recreational sports and outdoor activities that exist. Things like hiking, running, rock climbing, and swimming are all fun activities that can be done to boost physical activity.

As stated earlier, you don’t need to do more than you’re comfortable with to see results. Here are a few ideas:

  • Choose a local half-mile trail to start hiking on and enjoy the sights of nature.
  • Map out a mile-long walking or running course around your neighborhood, with opportunities to circle back if you want to cut it short.
  • If you aren’t scared of heights, try rock climbing or bouldering. Rock climbing gyms have been popping up in towns everywhere in the past several years!
  • Depending on location and season, find a place to swim. Go to an indoor community pool or find a nice swimming hole!
  • If you can find and join a recreation team in your community, you try things like volleyball, tennis, basketball, and more.

When you exercise or play with friends or people in your community, it’s easier to start. The actual act of exercise also goes by faster, often without you even realizing it. Social activities, whether exercise-centric or not, also do wonders for mental wellness. Just imagine the positive effects you’ll enjoy when you combine the two! When you make new friends and have things to look forward to, you can experience some very positive life-changing side effects.

Final Thoughts

Until very recently, humans had to physically exert themselves simply for survival. Not having to do so is a fairly new reality. For thousands of years, we had to hunt, farm, build, and maintain so much on a daily basis. It was exhausting work, mostly done by hand, and every day people used their bodies to achieve their survival goals. We are hard-wired to get positive chemicals from that feeling of physical work. Evolution didn’t have the chance to catch up with our comparatively comfortable modern way of life, where people often work with their minds significantly more than their bodies.

Nowadays, we’re parked in front of a computer, in an office, or behind the wheel of a truck. We don’t use our bodies in the way evolution and instinct want us to use them. As we move further away from everyday physical work, we need to make sure to fulfill that need for physical exertion in our leisure time. It’s been proven time and again that exercise has nothing but a positive effect on our bodies. Perhaps the same can be said about what it does for our minds as well.

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