What Impact Does Running Have On Our Mental Health?

Paul Croston

Paul Croston, service manager at mental health charity Leeds Mind, and a regular South Leeds Laker bridges the links between mental health and running.


Running has a huge potential to enhance our wellbeing. Even a short burst of 15 minutes’ brisk walking increases our mental alertness, energy and positive mood, so imagine what positive and immediate impact running (this includes all paces and abilities of running) can have on your mental health.


Participation in regular running can increase our self-esteem, it can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.


Impact on our mood


Running has been shown to have a positive impact on our mood – a reason why Rose runs. A study asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (going for a brisk walk or running), and periods of inactivity (watching television, surfing the web). Researchers found that the participants felt more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity. They also found that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when mood was initially low.


Dalia, a fellow Leeds runner, shares her story on running and its mood enhancing power.


There are many studies looking at physical activity at different levels of intensity and its impact on people’s mood. Overall, research has found that low-intensity aerobic exercise – (brisk walking or light running) for 30–35 minutes, 3–5 days a week was best at increasing positive moods. (Ref 1)


Impact on our stress


When events occur that make us feel threatened or that upset our balance in some way, our body’s defences cut in and create a stress response, which may make us feel a variety of uncomfortable physical symptoms and make us behave differently, and we may also experience emotions more intensely.


Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress. Research on both employed and unemployed adults has found that physically active individuals (runners) tend to have lower stress rates compared to individuals who are less active.


My own running experience shines a light on this:


Running has helped me to deal with my own anxiety and stresses of life, whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, feeling hopeless, feeling tired, feeling scared or feeling really low in mood for no particular reason – I know I can always turn to running, (either by myself or with others) to help me deal with my own thoughts and feelings


Impact on our self-esteem


Exercise not only has a positive impact on our physical health, but it can also increase our self-esteem. Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves and how we perceive our self-worth. It is a key indicator of our mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with life stressors.


Running has been shown to have a positive influence on our self-esteem and self-worth as told through the eyes of Nicky here. This relationship has been found in children, adolescents, young adults, adults and older people, and across both males and females.


Where do I start?


Once you have decided that you want to be more physically active by running, there are a few points worth thinking about.


Would you rather go it alone or go with a friend or with a group? Social support is a great motivator, and sharing your experiences, goals and achievements will help you to keep focus and enthusiasm. Most organised running groups have absolute beginners groups – I’ve known many people start at this point, within 6 months they are merrily, yes merrily, completing a 10K run (6 miles)


Overcoming barriers


It can be a bit scary making changes to your life, and most people get anxious about trying something new. Some common barriers, such as cost, injury or illness, lack of energy, fear of failure, or even the weather can hinder people from getting started; however, practical and emotional support from friends, family and experts really does help.


Body image can act as a barrier to participating in running. Liz’s story is a testament to this.


People who are anxious about how their body will look to others while they are exercising may avoid exercise as a result. Running with a companion or others can also help to reduce anxiety about how your body looks to others, and may be particularly helpful during the first few runs.


Remember – the only thing to fear is fear itself! Our own self-doubt, self-criticism and unrealistic expectations of self can be the main barriers to us starting to run or continuing to run.


Start slowly


If running is new to you, it’s best to build up your ability gradually. Focus on goals, such as improving stamina, rather than competition, and keep a record of your activity and review it to provide feedback on your progress. There are many apps and social networks accessible for free to help – the Run Leeds community is one of these!  


Couch to 5k is a good starting point – – its fine to start with brisk walking then build up to a run/walk… you’ll soon progress to running non-stop.




Running is not a magic wand to make everything okay but it can help you put things into perspective or give your active mind a rest.



Many, many times after I finish a run I feel a lot better emotionally and physically than I did before a run. Even when I go for a run and it hurts all the way round and I do a much slower pace than I want or expected– when I finish I still feel a sense of achievement, something to be proud of, and something to build on



(Ref 1) Kanning, M. & Schlicht, W. (2010). Be Active and Become Happy: An Ecological Momentary Assessment of Physical Activity and Mood. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32 (2), 253–261.


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