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8 Reasons To Run For Depression & Anxiety Management

Depression affects many people and makes routine daily tasks challenging.

Running is an aerobic exercise that not only helps to keep the heart and body healthy but has also been shown to combat the symptoms associated with depression.

I can testify to this – when my mood is low, a run will always bring me back to the present, boosting feelings of happiness. Here, I present scientific evidence in support of running and management of depression.

What is depression

Depression is one of the most common psychological conditions and is underpinned by significant mortality and morbidity. It is thought that neurological changes, including disturbances in neurotransmitters in the brain, contribute to the condition. These neurotransmitters are brain signalling molecules, including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline).

Current drug targets typically act on these pathways to assist in alleviating the symptoms of depression. Running helps to fight depression in two distinct ways:

  1. generally by boosting self-esteem and confidence
  2. by directly acting on the brain.

This article will discuss eight reasons why running can help with depression and the management of symptoms.

1

Release Of Endorphins

Endorphins are known to produce the ‘runner’s-high’ – but what are endorphins and how do they make you feel great after running?

Endorphins are a family of chemicals that are produced by the brain to combat pain, boost happiness, and promote feelings of calm and general well-being. They work in a similar way to opioids, which are known as a solution for pain management and to promote feelings of euphoria.

The level of endorphins produced will vary from runner to runner, and the precise mechanisms behind a ‘runner’s-high’ are not known. Endorphins may work alone or alongside other brain chemicals, but there is no doubt that those runners-highs do exist, and many can testify to it.

Neurotransmission in the Synapse

2

Increase In Neurotransmitters

Serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are all important neurotransmitters required for brain function and mood management.

These neurotransmitters are released during exercise, including running activities. This is important because a decrease in levels of these neurotransmitters are linked to depression.

By running, you can naturally boost the chemicals needed to help the brain function at its best, promoting a good mood.

3

Vitamin D Exposure

Vitamin D is also referred to as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin since it is primarily absorbed through exposure to the sun. It is an essential fat-soluble vitamin important for bone strength, immunological functions and cellular growth.

Running outside, and being exposed to sunlight, can increase exposure to vitamin D, this is of particular importance when considering depression; a growing body of scientific evidence supports a role for Vitamin D in mood disorders, such as depression.

One meta-analysis study identified that Vitamin D levels were low in those persons suffering from depression; therefore, natural sunlight or dietary supplementation, with vitamin D may be essential to keep the mood lifted.

4

Stress Management

Exposure to long-term stress can lead to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Stress is characterised by the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, and whilst it may seem to be counterintuitive, exercise, such as running,  acutely increases the release of norepinephrine levels.

This is important because it appears that exercise encourages biological changes that assist in helping an individual manage the stress response. In this sense, one could argue that running teaches the body to better deal with stressful conditions; therefore, those with a more sedentary lifestyle may be more exposed to the risks associated with stress and depression.

5

Boost Self-confidence

Depression is often able to distort how we see, or feel about, ourselves; this can cause a previously confident person to have low self-esteem and negative self-perception.

Management of these symptoms and self-thought processes is critical to breaking the negative cycle; exercise has been shown to help do just that. Exercise, including running, can boost self-esteem and produce the feel-good factor. It has also been shown to improve overall health, with body toning and strength promoting a general feeling of well-being.

6

Nature and Mental Health – Mindfulness

There are multiple testimonies of people saying that they feel better after spending time in green places and amongst nature. This is not always practical for everybody, but if the opportunity arises, put on your trainers and go out and listen to sounds, or look at the sights of nature whilst running.

On a positive note, it is also a form of mindfulness and will act to ground you in the present moment. This will also alleviate racing or intrusive thought processes, often common in depression. This sense of calm and grounding can be performed indoors by listening to mindfulness apps or sounds of nature whilst running on a treadmill.

7

Improve Sleep Quality

Poor sleep quality as a cause or symptom of depression is reported, but the good news is that exercise can promote better quality sleep.

Good quality sleep is essential for many aspects of physical health, including supporting immunological functions, stress, anxiety and cardiovascular health.

Regular exercise, including running, has been shown to improve sleep quality and to increase the duration of sleep. Given the relationship between sleep and depression, it could be an important factor when considering the treatment of mood disorders.

By regularly running, sleep may be improved and mood-related symptoms attenuated.

Brain Cells

Neurons in the brain

8

Create New Brain Cells

The process of creating new brain cells is called neurogenesis.

Neurogenesis is being scientifically researched as some anti-depressants have been shown to create new neurons; this means that the ability to produce more neurons may harness the power to treat depression.

Importantly, running and other forms of exercise, have also been shown to increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus; this is not just important for depression, but also sharpening the mind generally. As we age, this consideration is an important step that can be taken to reduce cognitive decline.

Summary

There is no doubt that running can help improve mental health by either preventing or aiding in the treatment of existing conditions. So, there is no excuse not to don those running shoes and go for a run.

It is noteworthy that running should not be used as a replacement for medical advice, but for many, it complements medical intervention. Some runners report a reduction in the dosage of drugs. Any changes to medication must be under the supervision of a professional medical practitioner.

References

  1. Anglin, R.E., et al., Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Psychiatry, 2013. 202: p. 100-7.
  2. Lin, T.-W. and Y.-M. Kuo, Exercise benefits brain function: the monoamine connection. Brain sciences, 2013. 3(1): p. 39-53.
  3. Lopresti, A.L., S.D. Hood, and P.D. Drummond, A review of lifestyle factors that contribute to important pathways associated with major depression: Diet, sleep and exercise. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2013. 148(1): p. 12-27.
  4. Dolezal, B.A., et al., Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review. Advances in Preventive Medicine, 2017. 2017: p. 1364387.
  5. Eisch, A.J. and D. Petrik, Depression and hippocampal neurogenesis: a road to remission? Science (New York, N.Y.), 2012. 338(6103): p. 72-75.
  6. Moret, C. and M. Briley, The importance of norepinephrine in depression. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 2011. 7(Suppl 1): p. 9-13.

Dr Tracey Evans holds a PhD in Neuroscience, MSc in Molecular Neuroscience and BSc (Hons) in Biomedical Sciences. Working in medical research and as a scientific writer for Fitness Savvy, Dr Evans is passionate about health and mental well-being and has spent several years working as a fitness manager and personal trainer.

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