It’s no secret that exercise is one of, if not the most fantastic way to release stress and forget the ebbs and flows of your daily anxieties. Exercise silences that chattering monkey in our heads that dwells on mistakes, missed opportunities, bad decisions and fears about the future. It also helps us sleep and improves our physical fitness – two things without which it’s often hard to gain perspective and positivity.
These things are now beyond doubt, but what’s actually going on inside our bodies when we run that helps us let go of stress and live happier lives?
It’s all about endorphins, the feel-good hormones in your body that get so much love and respect from doctors the world over. Endorphins are a naturally occurring opiate that are used by the body to quell pain – which is probably why they flood the body during exercise or when our bodies are under physical stress, though no one really knows for sure. They have also been shown to slow the aging process, relieve psychological states such as stress, and boost your immune system.
But on top of the physiological effects, there are the psychological. Running gives us alone time, even when we’re running in a huge group at an organised event. There is something meditative about the focus we bring to running – we concentrate on our breathing, and the physical effort of putting one foot in front of the other pushes all other thoughts from our minds.
Every run ends with a sense of accomplishment. For those of us who spend too much time worrying about how ‘well’ we’re using our life, the achievement of completing a run affords us a moment of peace from those critical thoughts. A run is always time well spent, no matter how busy we are or how many other things we feel we should be doing.
And then there’s the psychological effect of simply being outside, amplified for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to run surrounded by the glories of nature, or at least a little clean air and greenery. As developmental biologist Professor Lewis Wolpert says, “There’s no one I know who runs and doesn’t feel better afterwards.”
There have been plenty of studies to back up the professor’s observation. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reported one involving 80 adults who were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression. Its researchers looked at exercise alone to treat the condition and found depressive symptoms were reduced by almost 50% for individuals who participated in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to five times a week over 12 weeks. Those who exercised with low-intensity for three to five days a week showed a 30% reduction in symptoms, while participants who did some stretching and flexibility exercises for 15 to 20 minutes three days a week averaged a 29% decline.
For many of us, running clearly combines the best of many worlds – the exercise makes us feel better about our bodies while improving the health of our lungs and heart; it releases endorphins that improve our mood and help us achieve our running goals; and it gives us the excuse we need to get out for some alone time, away from our screens, surrounded by real world.
As Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.”