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Does Running Actually Help You Battle Depression?

Running cannot take the place of professional help for anyone suffering from depression. Many people may be reluctant to see a therapist for help but it is truly the best thing someone suffering from depression can do.

Running is often mentioned as a way to lessen the effects of depression and even elevate the mood of someone trying to navigate the murkiness of the disease. With that in mind, we reached out to Dr. Glenn Geher, Professor and Chair of Psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, to first explain what depression is and if running can, in fact, be beneficial.

Defining Depression

Depression can be different for everyone however, psychological professionals agree on the following as symptoms of the disease:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Change in sleeping patterns—more or less
  • Anger or irritability
  • Crying more
  • Change in appetite, or weight loss or gain
  • Isolation
  • Loss of energy
  • Reckless behavior

What Depression is NOT

According to Dr. Geher, depression is different than a temporary state of negative affect. “We all feel bad at times,” Geher explains, “and, in fact, that is part of the “design” of our emotion system—negative emotions are critical for our ultimate survival and reproduction as they motivate us toward stimuli that will likely be beneficial for us and away from stimuli that are can harm us.”

Although negative emotions have a place in our psychology, Dr. Geher warns that the tendency to be sad or upset about something bad that happened is not defined as depression unless the “negative mood (and concomitant symptoms) are long-standing and interfering with one’s life on a day-to-day basis.”

How Running Can Help

As any long-term runner knows, it helps with all kinds of things! In fact, the short list of what recent research suggests includes keeping your mind sharp, helping you connect with your community, extending your life and building confidence. Dr. Geher reminds us that “running is famously associated with the release of endorphins in the brain, which provide natural uplifts in mood.” Runner’s high, anyone?

Geher shared this story with me to underscore the positive (yet seemingly negative) effects running can have:

“A good friend of mine came up to me after a meeting yesterday and happily declared ‘I ran 10 miles today! I am in pain!’ This kind of statement speaks to the fact that with running, we often find ourselves to be proud of our accomplishments—and we are even proud of the self-sacrifice that comes with the terrain.”

Yes we are.

How Running Can NOT Help

Although there are tremendous benefits to running, Dr. Geher explained that depression can be severe and treatments are often ineffective. “Running is great for self-esteem and mood—but it’s hardly a single cure for depression.” In fact, Dr. Geher explained that often, depressed individuals have difficulty getting out of bed or making it downstairs and, in such cases, long-distance running is likely simply not a clear route for recovery—at least not in the short-term.

What to do if someone you know threatens suicide:
Take them seriously and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or the police to do a welfare check. It’s important to remember that they want to get better and they need help to do so.

Allie Burdick

Allie Burdick

Allie is a freelance writer, athlete and mom, but not in that order. Her work has appeared in Runner's World, Triathlon Magazine and ESPNW. On her blog, VITA Train for Life, she chronicles her life as a runner/triathlete and hopes her successes and failures help to motivate and inspire others, even the over-40 crowd she somehow found herself in! The rest of her time is spent raising her twin boys with her husband in the Northeast where they live a big life! See it all on Twitter and Instagram.