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The value of running: why it's good for your mental and physical wellbeing

Since a very young age, we’re all taught about the importance of meeting a daily and weekly exercise quota. But as other responsibilities start to take precedence, meeting these goals can become more challenging.

Since a very young age, we’re all taught about the importance of meeting a daily and weekly exercise quota. But as other responsibilities start to take precedence, meeting these goals can become more challenging.

Fortunately, there are more options than ever before to help us maintain a consistent and effective exercise routine, with home workouts in particular coming into fashion in recent years. Although virtual exercise has seen considerable growth in popularity since the start of the pandemic, lots of people still like to get out of the house and go for a run.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how running can support both our physical and mental wellbeing, explore the science behind the benefits, and provide some tips for anyone looking to start running more regularly.

Physical health benefits

Different types of running will impact your body in different ways. For example, more vigorous, high-intensity runs like hill repeats will build speed and strength, whilst recovery runs are more likely to target aerobic capacity.

Whatever style of run you take on, and however you choose to perform it, you will experience positive effects from partaking in such exertion. Here are some of the physical rewards associated with running.

  • Reduces the risk of many long-term illnesses. One of the most prominent benefits of running is it can support your long-term health, and help to reduce the risk of developing potentially life-threatening illnesses.

    Physical activity of any description can help in both the prevention and management of more than 20 chronic health conditions and diseases. However, according to recent government statistics, around a third of men (34%) and nearly one in two women (42%) aren’t getting enough exercise in order to maintain good health. In the long term, engaging in regular physical activity such as running will improve your quality of life and can ultimately lead to a longer and healthier life.
  • Burns calories. Running is generally considered to be one of the best activities for burning calories. Calories are essential to providing our bodies with energy, but consuming more than we burn can lead to weight gain. On top of helping to manage weight, burning extra calories can offer various other benefits to our general health, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

    There are lots of different factors that’ll impact how many calories you burn during a run, including your weight, the intensity of the workout and how long you exercise for.

    If you’re looking to burn more calories on your runs, varying their intensity is one of the best things you can do. Interspersing short bursts of high-intensity running with longer periods of recovery will force your body to work harder and ultimately burn more calories. High-intensity running could mean going faster, or perhaps heading for a steeper incline – bear these techniques in mind if weight loss is your primary goal.
  • Improves muscle strength and stamina. Running can also help to build up strength and muscle endurance in different parts of the body. The main muscle groups targeted during a run are the legs, core and upper body. As you complete more workouts and the strength in these areas increases, you will find you’re able to build up the duration and intensity of your runs, which will lead to further improvements in your physical fitness.

Mental health benefits

For many people, exercise and running in particular plays an important role in helping them stay in control of their mental wellbeing. On top of providing you with a chance to socialise with other runners, lots of healthy changes happen within our bodies during and after a run, which can ultimately have a positive impact on mental health.

  • Boosts confidence and self-esteem. Running is a great way to boost your self-esteem. Not only can the physical changes inspire more confidence in one’s physical appearance, but it also brings on a greater sense of belief in your own abilities.

    A good way to enhance the effects of gaining greater self-esteem and confidence through running is to track your progress. Use an app or a running watch to measure distances, timings, and fitness metrics such as heart rate. As you begin to build up your stamina and bank more miles, it can be really rewarding to look back on how far you’ve come, motivating you to improve even further.
  • Connecting with other people. Running can be a very personal experience, with some people preferring to put their earphones in and shut out the world. But it can equally be a great opportunity to socialise with like-minded runners and form bonds with new friends. Not only can working out in a group help to give your physical performance a boost, but it can also help enhance feelings of well-being.
  • Stress management. Engaging in vigorous physical activity such as running is a great way to relieve stress. You don’t have to take on a strenuous 10K to feel the stress-busting benefits, either. A simple 10 or 15-minute run will be enough to make a difference, and provide a distraction from the day’s worries.

    The benefits don’t stop at the end of your run. After you’ve finished exercising, chemicals which are released during physical exertion will move into your bloodstream and brain, providing you with short-term feelings of calm.

The science behind the benefits

Improved self-esteem, better relationships and reduced stress levels can all directly contribute to improving your general mood. But running itself can also have a direct impact on your frame of mind. In fact, one recent study found that running for just 10 minutes can boost brain activity and contribute to a better mood. This phenomenon of experiencing a temporary euphoric feeling after completing a run is referred to as the ‘runner’s high’, which occurs due to an increased level of certain chemicals inside the body whilst running.

For a long time, it was thought that endorphins were the chemical responsible for this temporary shift in our mood. However, more recent research suggests that while endorphins play a role in helping our muscles to feel more relaxed, instead, endocannabinoids are in fact responsible for that blissful post-run feeling.

Endocannabinoids are molecules produced by our bodies to help regulate internal functions such as temperature and mood. The production of these biochemical substances increases during exercise, and the raised levels in the bloodstream and brain can account for the more relaxed mood that can be felt after a run.

It’s worth noting that not everyone will experience this blissful post-workout mood, with it actually being quite a rare occurrence.

But while the runner’s high is a rare and temporary feeling, aerobic exercises such as running can also have more lasting impacts on our bodies and brains. For example, it’s widely accepted that exercise can have a positive effect on our cognitive health, which refers to different functions of our brains such as thinking, learning and remembering.

With exercise helping to keep our brains nourished and healthy, it can contribute towards preventing cognitive decline. In fact, one study concluded that inactive adults are almost twice as likely to experience cognitive decline compared to those who exercise regularly.

Finding your running preferences

There are many different running styles and types that you can participate in, with some potentially being better suited to your workout preferences and lifestyle. When looking to get into running, it’s important to be aware of the different options available, so you can experiment and find one that works for you.

For instance, many beginners favour starting out on a treadmill, which can give you greater control over the intensity of your workouts, and will be less taxing on your joints. A treadmill also offers greater flexibility, making it safer to work out at night and in all weather conditions.

Whereas for others, the thought of running in a gym is a daunting prospect, and whether you buy your own treadmill or sign up for a gym membership, using this equipment can be costly. Running outside is not only inexpensive, but it allows you to enjoy all the benefits of being in nature, and aiming to reach a certain landmark (as well as the changing view) can be motivating.

Five top tips for getting into running

Lacing up your shoes and going for a run for the first time can feel slightly intimidating. But there are lots of things you can do that will make it easier for you to get started, and maintain a consistent exercise schedule.

1. Ease yourself in

When taking up any new physical activity, it’s important not to take on more than your body is comfortable with. Running too often, too far, or too quickly, too soon can all be counterproductive and may lead to injury, which can set you back on your fitness journey. Take things slow and steady to begin with to build a solid foundation and help keep your workouts sustainable.

Once you’ve decided on some goals that you want to achieve through running, you may be eager to cross the finish line as soon as possible. However, it’s often advisable to slow things down, and start with a more gentle stroll. Walking before you start a run will help your body to adjust and prepare for the impact that running has on your muscles and joints. And of course, slowing down for a walk mid-session can be just as useful. This will allow you to exercise for longer, and get more out of your sessions.

2. Find a time of day that suits you

The beauty of running is, providing you have access to the correct equipment, you can do it any time of the day or night. Whilst early birds may prefer to complete a morning run, others might favour exercising in their lunch break, or after work.

The right choice will be personal to you, but there are certain considerations you should bear in mind. For instance, running too late in the day could be detrimental to your sleep hygiene. This is because vigorous exercise raises your heart rate and keeps your nervous system active, which makes it harder for your body to switch off at bedtime.

There are pros and cons to exercising at all different times throughout the day. Ultimately, the most important thing is to find a time that suits your schedule, and will allow you to stick to a consistent routine.

3. Embrace technology

More and more technology is becoming available to help both improve the quality and frequency of your runs. For example, the NHS’s Couch to 5K running plan is designed to help beginners build up their fitness and work towards completing a 5K run after nine weeks. The plan can be downloaded as an app on your smartphone, and it offers guidance on recommended runs, with support from coaches who will help you to track your progress.

If you find this plan doesn’t suit your ability level or workout preferences, there are many more options available to explore. From apps that map out potential running routes, to ones specifically designed to help you achieve your personal health and fitness goals, technology can be used in so many different ways to keep you motivated and optimise your exercise time.

4. Phone a friend

Ask a friend, family member, colleague or anyone you know with similar fitness goals to join you for a workout, and you may find you're more motivated to complete it – particularly on those days where a run isn’t top of your to-do list. Even if you find that you prefer exercising on your own most of the time, the occasional shared session can give your workout regime a boost.

If you don’t know anyone who might be interested, but you still want to work out more socially, consider joining a running group. Whether you become part of an online community or sign up to your local club, there are plenty of options available. For example, ‘parkrun’ is a great way to participate in running more socially, with free organised 5K events taking place every week at more than 2,000 locations around the world. You can find your nearest event on their website.

On top of the encouragement and motivation that groups will naturally provide each other with, you’ll also have access to a wealth of training tips and advice. What’s more, if you have any safety concerns about running on your own, joining a group is a great way to put your mind at ease.

5. Set some goals for yourself

Our final tip to help you get started and stick to your new running regime is to set some achievable goals. Different people will take up running for different reasons – it’s important to consider what it is you want to get from your workouts. For instance, are you simply looking to improve your general fitness? Or, are you looking for an activity that takes you out of your daily routine and focuses your mind on something more positive?

You’ll likely have a reason to take up running, so think about what that is and set your goals around it. Ultimately, having these goals in place can help you stay motivated and consistent with your workouts, to ensure you’re getting the most out of the time you spend being active.

Making running a regular part of your weekly routine can be challenging for many different reasons. But soon enough, going for a run can become an enjoyable habit. Finding the conditions that are right for you are crucial to helping you get started with your running, so take the time to experiment with a few different options and you’ll be on the path to a healthier way of living.