Although it’s been a couple of years since my “glory days” as a JV cross country runner ended, I still love running. It has been difficult for me to find time to run as a stressed out college student. However, whenever I do find the time, I always feel so much better afterwards. The feeling after a good run is like clearing my head of all the garbage that’s filled up in it throughout the day. This got me thinking about the impact running has on mental state, and if it’s something that could be used to help people with mental health issues. In my own life, it’s certainly helped me cope with anxiety and stressful thoughts, so maybe it could do the same for others. Is running, and exercising in general, an effective treatment for mental illnesses?
It’s difficult to narrow down this question into one specific hypothesis. There are many factors that could contribute to an overall better mental state and help alleviate mental illness symptoms. However, at its base level, there is an x and y variable. The causal (x) variable is the amount of running or exercising—or whether someone even does it at all. The response (y) variable would then be the lessening of mental health symptoms.
From the research I gathered on the topic, it seems that there are multiple links between running and other factors that could help those suffering from mental illnesses. One of the biggest and most well documented correlations is that between running and mood. While this had previously been considered to be just popular wisdom, there is recent evidence to suggest that there is an actual chemical change that occurs after physical activity. This article describes a study where scientists performed PET scans on participants two hours before and after a run. What they found was that endorphins were released while running. Endorphins are a chemical that gives signals to the neurons in your brain, so they’re what is known as neurotransmitters. They are associated with boosting mood due to their interactions with the parts of the brain that deal with emotions. According to the New York Times article, the study found that these endorphins produced while running were interacting with the limbic and prefrontal parts of the brain, which are what control our emotions. While boosting mood isn’t enough to completely treat mental illness, it could certainly help alleviate symptoms.
Other studies have tried to look directly at the relationship between exercise and mental health. I was actually able to find several meta-analyses that compare different studies related to mental illness and physical activity and draw conclusions about the relationship between the two. One of these meta-analyses found that a lot of evidence pointed towards a positive and beneficial relationship between running and the mental health of those suffering from depression and anxiety. However, this review also pointed out potential negative effects of exercise. Some studies have been done on the subject of over-exercise, which can become a neurotic behavior that takes priority over other aspects of the sufferer’s life. Overall, though, it seems that this paper concludes that exercise can help relieve symptoms of particular mental illnesses.
Another meta-analysis found a good amount of support for the idea that running and physical exercise can work as an anti-depressant and help lower anxiety. They also noted evidence that linked exercise to improved mood. However, this particular review pointed out some of the flaws they found in research methods within the field. Some studies were not randomized at all, and others had no control group at all. From a credibility standpoint, not having a control group seems suspect to me. How do you conclude that exercise helps mental illness without comparing to a group of people who partook in no physical activity? This hints at some faulty science and could discredit some of the findings on this topic. This is also an excellent example of peer review where scientists are pointing out the flaws in others’ research in the hopes of creating better studies and research methods, and in turn, more reliable results.
While some studies on this topic seem to have been faulty and poorly designed, there is still a lot of evidence that lends weight to the proposition that running and exercise helps mental illness. More than one meta-analysis concluded that exercise had positive effects on those with mental illness symptoms, which leads me to believe that my hypothesis is true. In addition, the shown link between running and mood shows how exercise can influence us and alter our emotional state. With the overwhelming good effects that come from exercise, I can feel confident in my decision to keep on running.