Can running improve my mental health?

Yes, running can improve your mental health and general wellbeing. Running has been shown to improve mood, and reduce stress and anxiety symptoms both alone, and in combination with psychological treatments for mood disorders.

In addition to mood improving benefits, other benefits of running include:

    • That it can be a naturally mindful activity for some, or an opportunity to catch when your mind has wandered to (over)thinking and then bring your attention back to the task at hand.
    • Being in nature, which itself has been shown to reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing.
    • Opportunities for social connection. Joining a running group, club, training program, or attending your local park run is a great way for connecting and building a sense of community

So, how do I get started?

  • First, ensure that you have had a recent health check up with your GP and that you’re safe to start a new exercise regime.
  • Start small. If you haven’t run in a while don’t expect to be able to go out and knock 5kms out of the park. Instead try something like 30-seconds of running, 30-seconds of walking, and repeat for 5-minutes. Then gradually build up from here.
  • Gradually build up. Only increase your distance or time on your feet by 10% each week.
  • Find a programme, like couch to 5km, or a local running group delivering a training programme for an upcoming event.
  • If you choose to follow a training programme, be flexible. If you need to shift a run day, do so. If you miss a run, that’s okay you can still get back on track.
  • Run with people. It is often more enjoyable with the added benefit of holding you accountable to completing that run you scheduled in.

Training techniques

Keep a chatty pace

Its important to remember that 90% of your running should feel easy. If it doesn’t, then you’re running too hard. Slow down and aim for a “chatty pace”. Meaning that you could hold a conversation comfortably with a companion as you run along.

The ‘run-walk’ method

Don’t be afraid to alternate between running and walking. This is a great way to increase time on feet and distance without putting too much strain on your body, and mentally helps to break up the run. Many experienced marathoners have set their PBs using this method during the race. Click to learn more about the run-walk method. 

Low heart rate running

Low heart rate running is a run in which you use your heart rate to guide your pace and effort.  Generally, to calculate your maximum heart rate for these runs, the rule is to subtract your age from 180.

For example, if you are 30, then you will be aiming to keep your heart rate below 150 beats per minutes on your low heart rate runs. You can learn more about calculating your maximum heart rate for these types of runs here. Or if you have a Garmin watch, look to keep your heart rate in the blue (easy) or green (aerobic) zone, or equivalent on other smart watches.

Be patient with low heart rate runs, you may need to slow down to a plod or a walk at times (especially if there is a hill!), but this is a great way of building baseline fitness and to increase your efficiency.

Okay…but I really hate running

Okay, fair enough. If running really isn’t your thing then never fear- the evidence base demonstrates that other forms of regular, moderate intensity exercise have equivalent mood boosting, stress reducing effects as running. This can include things like dancing and resistance (weights) training.

Find what you enjoy, as this will be easier to stick to!

Written by Gemma Healey, Clinical Psychologist


More information

If you’re concerned about depression or anxiety, or would like to learn more about developing healthy habits with Gemma Healey or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, then call 6143 4499 or email via our contact page

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