Run for your mind! How running boosts your mental strength

The physical benefits of running are well known: improved cardiovascular fitness, better health, even a wave goodbye to knee and back pain if you do it right. Well, there are also some extremely powerful mental benefits of running, too.

Why I Run podcast co-host Erin Asar puts it beautifully: “I run for my sanity.” Her co-host, world-record breaking swimmer Ayo Akinwolere, agrees, seeing it as much more than exercise: “Running does so much for us under the surface. Running is a form of active meditation. It allows me to clear my mind, to expand and rediscover.”

Most of us aren’t running for world records or doing it to beat a PB. We run because it makes us feel good.

As Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Bristol, Marcus Munafò is in a good place to explain why running and exercise keep us mentally balanced.

Marcus Munafò

“We know exercise helps combat depression and anxiety, most likely because it helps create the body’s natural mood elevators and painkillers, endorphins. These work to reduce the levels of stress hormone, cortisol, in the body.”

It’s something winner of Red Bull Dance Your Style USA Angel ‘Angyil’ McNeal identifies with: “I run because it’s therapeutic. Every time my feet hit the ground, I feel like I’m releasing stress and releasing thoughts. It makes me feel calm. I can process me. I feel like I have time.”

“I can think myself into all kinds of craziness, so running helps me keep pace, physically and in my mind. Running even for 10 minutes in the morning slows me down. It gives me space to process and understand things. I’m able to see, I’m able to smell, I’m able to taste the air. To feel.”

It was the same for Sandile Mkhize before a thoracic nerve (T5) spinal cord injury in 2013 paralyzed him. “I last ran – in the traditional sense – in early 2013, before the motorbike accident. I remember the sense of freedom and joy of just being with myself and with my thoughts. It was a form of meditation. I try to replicate that feeling in my cardio still, using my wheelchair.”

For Sandile, exercising “makes me feel good; it’s empowering. Getting the blood going clears my mind.”

“Sandile hits the nail on the head,” says Marcus, “when he talks about getting his blood moving to clear his mind. Exercising – running – increases blood flow to the brain, which may explain why his mind feels clearer, calmer and more relaxed.”

“It’s very important, though, to remember that over training and pushing too hard is as damaging as doing too little exercise. Running recovery, listening to your body, and both scheduling then taking rest days, is vital. Exercising should be enjoyable.”

Sandile recognizes just how important exercise is for his mental health: “It cuts through my bad habits and takes me out of a head space I don’t want to be in. Exercise is a lifestyle for me. If I wasn’t exercising, and I wasn’t training, my life would be worse off.”

He plans to keep exercising for a long time to come – and we’ll be with him all the way, apparently: “I’m going to do the Wings for Life World Run until I’m an annoying old man.” He’s passionate about it.

The Wings for Life World Run is open to everyone – walkers, rollers, beginner runners, elite athletes. Come May 8 at 11am UTC, hundreds of thousands of people across the planet start their race against the Catcher Car, which starts chasing them 30 minutes later. If you thought you’d never run with a smile on your face, think again. This race is all about the smiles.

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