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Running and Mental Health Benefits


Article by Stephanie Hower

Photography by Provided

I began running shortly after I turned 30 years old. It started as a desire to complete a 5K and evolved into an outlet I never knew I needed. I have grown physically stronger and more resilient, but more surprisingly, I have grown mentally stronger and more resilient. 

After my second child was born, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism due to Hashimoto’s disease, which resulted in the removal of one lobe of my thyroid.

Although I felt relief that my constant fatigue and other symptoms were related to the autoimmune disorder, medication never fully resolved my energy levels. Then, a diagnosis of OCD and subsequent depression and anxiety led me to begin taking an SSRI. In both cases, I experienced relief upon receiving my diagnoses and beginning medication. Yet, I continued to struggle mentally, plagued by lingering worry, doubt and listlessness.

The New Me: A Runner and Holistic Thinker

Running broke this cycle. It became the final key to my physical, mental and emotional health.

Through therapy, finding proper medication dosages, and a commitment to exercise, I have become the healthiest version of myself.

At the start of the new year, I vowed to run 100 miles per month. It allows me to vent frustrations and burn off anxiety. It empowers me to take pride in my wins and personal bests. It soothes my unsettled mind. It strengthens me. I am a better mother, wife and person. I am in no way perfect, and I am not free of my afflictions. But I am better than I have ever been.

My hope is that anyone struggling with their own mental health can find the right balance of treatment for themselves. Mine requires therapy, medication and running. Yet, running can be replaced by any activity that soothes a troubled mind.

While I recommend a form of exercise (as it has proven mood-boosting benefits and improves overall health and well-being), not everyone may be able to do an activity that is physically demanding. Painting, music, CrossFit, yoga, Pilates, cooking, hiking, gardening, volunteering or simply walking may be your personal key to easing anxiety and depression.

Whatever you may choose, it should be implemented in a way that helps you achieve a maximum benefit. 

Achieve the Benefits of Running and Mental Health: How to Stick with Your Exercise Goals

Here are some tips to help you apply your “Mental Health Outlet,” no matter what form that may take. 

Benefit: More Self-Accountability

Make your outlet a priority

For me, this meant purchasing a treadmill so that I don’t miss runs due to weather or a busy schedule. My husband understands that when I need a run, I will slip out to the garage and take an hour or so for myself, sans kids or distractions.

Schedule yourself time to devote to your outlet, just as you would any other important task or appointment. 

Benefit: Greater Mental Focus and Direction

Set goals

Achieving a set goal gives me a sense of accomplishment and pride. It also helps me stay accountable. My goal is to run about 25 miles per week, so even missing one workout hurts. Once I began implementing a specific target, I’ve found I’m reluctant to slack off or skip runs. I push myself to run more often and farther, and I feel better for it.

Benefit: Better Manage your Anxiety and Stress

Enjoy it

While I love setting new personal bests, it can be draining to constantly push oneself harder and harder. There are days I simply run for the enjoyment of it, without stressing about my pace or finish time. When I am on the treadmill, I usually watch a favorite show or movie, which makes the experience even more of a treat. It’s my time to decompress without kids or work. Savor this time. Unwind and reconnect.

Benefit: Escape the Emotional Rollercoaster - Keep Consistent

Be kind to yourself. Avoid burnout

Inevitably, there are days I just can’t bring myself to run. Whether I am physically tired or emotionally drained, I need a break. That is OK, too. Usually, the weekend is my time to spend with family and friends and I can’t fit in a run. Yet, I try to stay active in other ways, such as biking, walking or maybe just playing with the kids. Off days are sometimes just as important, because it maintains my passion and doesn’t make me feel burned out.