Why running makes you feel so good

·3-min read
Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash
Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

Now that the UK is in lockdown and all gyms are temporarily closed, many people across the country are now regularly lacing up their running shoes for their daily dose of exercise (and vitamin D).

And for good reason. As well as being a fantastic form of cardio fitness that burns some serious calories, while also strengthens joints and bones, many runners say it has a particularly positive impact on their mental health.

"There are quite a few different aspects of psychological brain function that running can help with," says neuroscientist and Saucony ambassador Ben Martynoga. "Researchers like to think about this idea that perhaps we have evolved to run. In our really deep history being able to run was crucial for survival, for fleeing predators, finding food – and perhaps that’s why it activates some reward pathways."

Many people run to relieve stress. In 2019 Bella Mackie wrote her debut book, Jog On, about how running helped her battle crippling anxiety and depression and ultimately saved her life. And Martynoga says scientists are beginning to learn more about how aerobic exercise, like running, can help with this.

He points to studies from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden which focus on a chemical called kynurenine that’s made in the body. "It seems to build up in the brain in response to stress and it’s been quite clearly associated with depression and poorer mental health," he explains. "There’s good evidence now that when you go for a run or get active there’s an enzyme that’s activated in your muscles that breaks down or destroys this chemical (kynurenine) and starts to clear it out of your blood stream. So we’re seeing this very clear link between what’s happening in your muscles and what’s happening in your brain."

There's research to support the idea of the runner's high, too. "It seems to be related to the production of endocannabinoids (a group of neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry signals between brain cells, which affect mood, appetite, pain and memory) and endorphins that are produced naturally in the brain during a run," he explains."Cannabis binds to the same targets in the brain as the endocannabinoids and can have somewhat similar effects on state of mind.

"Similarly, endorphins, which are a bit like homebrewed opiates, like morphine, can give a real sense of reward and can reduce the experience of pain for example," he adds.

Running can also help you to better concentrate. "While you’re running and in the period when you get back from a run you do seem better able to focus. You can almost compare it to mindful meditation," he says, adding that we don’t yet know the full details of cause and effect.​

There are plenty of reasons to get some running (or walking) into your daily routine, especially as we all do our best to remain calm amid the global crisis. Just ensure you stay a safe 2m distance between you and anyone else.

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