Ask any runner, and they’ll tell you one of the best things you can do if you’re depressed is to go for a run. You may feel down when you start, but a few minutes in, there’s a good chance that whatever been upsetting you will fade.
One way to achieve this effect is to be mindful. Take in all the people, dogs, flowers, buildings — whatever it is that’s sharing your course. Hitting the trail can take your mind off your worries.
But what if you’re suffering from clinical depression and have been for some time? Running could benefit your heart, lungs, bones, and muscles, but will it do anything to bring positivity into your life after you’ve been struggling for a while?
The chemistry of running
As you run, you may notice your shoes pounding the pavement, your breath deepening, your heart pumping harder, and sweat forming on your skin.
In addition to these occurrences, less-noticeable chemical changes are also happening. While you can’t feel or see them, your body is releasing mood-enhancing substances that can act much like antidepressants.
When you run, you’re stressing your body, especially if you’re training for or participating in a race. It’s a good form of stress.
Your body has taken note of this stress, and in response, your hypothalamus and pituitary glands in your endocrine system release endorphins. These chemicals affect your brain’s neuron receptors to produce an analgesic effect that dulls the perception of pain.
Because of this property, endorphins have been called the body’s answer to morphine, minus the potential for substance abuse.
Endorphins usually receive much of the credit for producing the feel-good sensation known as a runner’s high. But a 2021 research review concludes that the credit should actually go to endocannabinoids, other biochemical substances produced by the body.
Endorphin molecules are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier that prevents toxins and pathogens from reaching the brain. Consequently, they remain in the bloodstream.
On the other hand, endocannabinoids are composed of fat molecules and lipid molecules that can penetrate this barrier and flood the brain. This flooding can produce runner’s high, a feeling of complete relaxation that some have described as a type of euphoria.
Running and the brain
Long after endorphin and endocannabinoid levels have returned to prerun normals, their antidepressive benefits remain. Not only do the substances improve the brain’s reaction to emotional and physical stress, they work against the cognitive decline that can come with age — a common source of depression in older adults.
The part of the brain that seems to benefit most from the effects of running is the hippocampus, an area associated with memory and learning.
As people age, the hippocampus loses some of its plasticity, which in turn affects its ability to generate new brain cells or neurons. This loss of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis can contribute to cognitive decline.
Running and other types of cardiovascular exercise have been found to generate new neurons in the hippocampus and other areas of the brain. At the same time, such activity also stimulates the growth of new blood vessels that can supply the brain with nourishment and oxygen.
Research supports such theories. In one experiment, researchers trained middle-aged mice to run on exercise wheels.
After three weeks, mice who exercised displayed less neuron generation decline. Compared to sedentary mice, neurons in their brains grew faster and integrated themselves more quickly.
People who run regularly also experience effects such as sharper memory, an improved ability to focus, and an overall elevation of mood.
The lingering effects of exercise
Exercise can create positive effects that can color a runner’s outlook on life for at least two days.
Researchers at George Mason University determined this by conducting a three-week experiment on a group of runners and asking them to complete a questionnaire at the end of each day’s run.
An analysis of their answers found that people who ran consistently held positive expectations for social events and achievements for that day. The runners also believed that the following day would bring similar positive results.
Speaking of social events, endocannabinoids not only make us feel good about ourselves, they make us feel good about running with others.
This desire to share the effects leads some runners to participate in fun runs and races where they meet other runners and continue to engage socially.
Such interaction could lead to consistent training as runners look forward to additional events and gatherings, creating positivity and interactions that could also fight depression.
Given the benefits of running, people might want to consider taking the advice of a well-known athletic company and just do it!