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Running Benefits the Mind and Body

Heroes In Recovery
| August 7, 2018

By Taylor Davis

Running has become an increasingly popular hobby for people who love physical fitness and want to embrace the challenge of participating in a big race. It requires discipline, training and endurance. We typically think of the physical benefits that come with running: improved heart rates, weight loss, increased energy, etc., but there are also many mental benefits that come with this activity. In fact, if you’ve struggled with anxiety, depression or substance abuse, consider running as an outlet for dealing with these issues.

Fighting Anxiety and Depression

Woman tying running shoeA lot of research has been conducted around the impact of running on mental health, particularly for those who experience anxiety and depression. This could be due to the brain chemistry that happens during a run. The hippocampus, an area of the brain believed to be the center of emotion, memory and the unconscious nervous system, is often shrunken in people who have depression, but MRI scans have shown size increases after a six-month exercise intervention. In addition to subjective changes, like mood and cognition, consistent running can also lead to long-term structural changes in the brain.1

These changes manifest themselves in a variety of physical ways. From increased learning capacity to better sleep and sharper memory, there are many improvements you can experience when you adopt a running habit.2 Overall, running can make you feel stronger, healthier, and capable of clear thinking. For one depression patient, marathon training helped her gain control over her condition. She carried a sense of accomplishment into other areas of her life, and was able to process negative thoughts in a different way. She reported that the thoughts would go away after running for two or three miles.2

Running is considered a viable treatment option for patients with anxiety and depression. In fact, one study found there was little difference in outcome for participants who joined a running group and those who joined a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) group. However, additional studies have found running was most effective when combined with traditional therapy, like talk therapy or medication.2 Be sure to talk to your doctor about which approach will work best for you.

Fighting Substance Abuse

Not only does running provide benefits for people who suffer from depression and anxiety, but it also can aid the substance abuse recovery process. While drugs can decrease the brain’s production of serotonin and dopamine and burn out their receptors, running helps to re-normalize the function of these neurotransmitters and re-boosts their production. And, once running becomes a habit, there is a decrease in cravings for unhealthy substances, according to 2011 research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.2

Ultimately, running and substance abuse comes down to an issue of control. Individuals with alcoholism typically deal with a chronic sense of frustration and helplessness that can lead to a dependence on alcohol or drugs. Running, on the other hand, instills a sense of control that can make a person feel stronger and capable of resisting unhealthy habits. Some people in recovery have found running to be more effective than discussion-based support groups, and have created their own support groups within running communities.3

Individuals in recovery should be aware that running can also be addictive; it’s important to set boundaries to ensure your fitness habit doesn’t become unhealthy. Additionally, substance abuse can cause heart issues that may affect your body’s capacity for aerobic exercise.3 Always consult a medical professional about your recovery plan and tactics.

Run in a Heroes 6K

Heroes in Recovery is currently holding 6K races across the country to raise awareness for and break the stigma around addiction and mental health issues. Sign up for a race near you today, or be a virtual runner and run anytime, anywhere for this cause.


1 Douglas, Scott. “When the Best Therapy is Right at Your Feet.” Accessed April 13, 2018.

2 Rasa, Candice. “10 Mental Health Benefits of Running.” July 6, 2017.

3 Rasa, Candice. “Why Running is Good for Addiction Recovery.” June 29, 2017.

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