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Running for Mental Health: 6 Reasons It Works For Me

Running for Mental Health: 6 Reasons It Works For Me

I’ve been a runner for over half my life, but I’ve never known how to convince other people to start running. Everyone already knows all the reasons to start: improved cardiovascular fitness, increased life expectancy. Everyone knows that more time in the sun means more vitamin D. Everyone has heard about, if not personally experienced, the runner’s high.

Don’t get me wrong. Those are all great reasons to run. There are no wrong reasons to run, so long as one is doing it safely. That said, I don’t personally find that long-term benefits or the hope of a runner’s high to be great motivators when it’s cold, raining, and I’ve got a thousand other things to do.

What does get me out the door are the very real ways that running helps my mental health. I am a survivor of severe mental illness, and maintaining mental and emotional stability is a serious priority for me. Running may not typically be what people think of as “self-care,” but it qualifies in my case – it is an activity I do for myself largely because it improves my mood and my outlook. I could probably name a few dozen reasons why running works for me, but for the sake of this post, I’ll stick to six.

1. I get to leave my house

I wouldn’t have put this at number one before the pandemic started, but since then it’s become critical. I worked remotely for years, so I have been long familiar with being at home most of my day. However, once lockdown started, I was no longer able to break up my day by going out to lunch or scheduling a shopping run. It wasn’t long before I started to feel stir-crazy. Running, even for a short time, gives me a reason just to get out of my house. And any good reason to go outside helps alleviate the stress of being cooped up most of my day.

2. My day is more structured

I’m not the kind of person who sticks to a rigid routine, but because I spend almost all of my day at home, some sense of self-enforced structure helps me to feel less adrift during my day. Running takes up anywhere from half an hour to a few hours, so on days with a lot going on, I must plan it into my schedule. On days where I have no other strict commitments, running helps me have a plan in the first place.

3. I get time for myself

My husband works remotely, so I see him all the time. I love my husband, but it’s nice to feel like there’s a space somewhere just for me (even if it’s technically a public park trail). I also benefit from a dedicated time when the phone is off and I can just be alone with my thoughts or listen to music. Listening to music is therapeutic for me, and running offers unadulterated time to do so.

4. I gain goals and a sense of progress

Although not everyone who runs wants to run races, I love them, even though I’m not that fast of a runner – I’m pretty average when it comes to speed. Even so, I like building up to running a long distance, and that always feels like a satisfying achievement for me. Not every race can be a P.R., but I still find it rewarding to see improvement over the long run.

5. Races give me an excuse to get away

Okay, so maybe this reason to run may seem more self-indulgent, but I think getting away can still qualify as self-care. When I do run races, they not only help me set and work towards goals (point 4), they also provide a great reason to take a break and go on a short vacation. Races of varying distances are held everywhere one might want to go, and I’ve run races in Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago, and elsewhere. I’ve also found that exciting race destinations are helpful in encouraging friends and family to tag along.

6. Running is surprisingly social

Many people enjoy running with groups, and they’re not hard to find in the age of the internet. I don’t generally run with groups, but I do love to talk about running with other people. Running is an instant source of conversation with others who do it, too, and if I do join in the occasional run with others, it is always a fun way to bond.

For all those reasons, running works to support and improve my mental well-being. I encourage anyone who is interested in the mental health benefits of running to read a little about how to get started, grab a pair of shoes, and hit the trail.

About the Author:  Jessica Thrower has been running for twenty years. She has finished five marathons and hopes to complete one in every state. Jessica, who lives with schizoaffective and bipolar disorders, shares her experiences as a NAMI In Our Own Voice Presenter.

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