Stress And Anxiety: How Running Can Improve Your Stress Levels

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Stress and anxiety are all too common these days. Between work demands and feeling over-scheduled, financial problems, relationship challenges and family stress, health concerns, world issues, and political tension, it seems like there’s often something in our lives causing tension, worry, and emotional distress.

Of course, no one likes to feel anxious. Your heart races, you might have trouble breathing, it’s hard to focus on what you actually should be doing, you often feel hungry or nauseous, and you might even have trouble sleeping

However, anxiety and stress are a state of mind, and there are various things you can do to reduce the feelings of stress and anxiety, one of which is running.

In this guide, we will discuss how running affects your stress and anxiety and how to safely and effectively use running to reduce stress and anxiety so that you feel as centered, balanced, and confident as you can.

We will look at: 

  • Mental Health Benefits of Running
  • Does Running Decrease Stress and Anxiety?
  • How Running Affects Your Stress and Anxiety

Let’s get started!

A group of people smiling and running, reducing their stress and anxiety.

Mental Health Benefits of Running

Suffering from stress and anxiety are unfortunately common problems, whether you have a clinical anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAS) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, transient situational anxiety, or simply more nerves and worries than you’d like to feel.

Anxiety is thought to be a product of elevated cortisol and an over-activity and a disruption in the negative feedback mechanisms of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary axis governing stress in the body.

The good news is that many studies have found that aerobic exercise, such as running, can lower stress and anxiety. 

Furthermore, research suggests that meeting the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations to accrue 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

A person running down the road, smiling.

Does Running Decrease Stress and Anxiety?

If you’ve ever felt like a good run helped you work out your nerves and decrease your stress, leaving you in a happier, calmer, more confident state, you’re not alone.

According to the American Psychological Association, 62 percent of adults who say they exercise to help manage stress report that their workout is indeed a “very” or “extremely” effective technique to manage stress.

Even a single run can immediately decrease state anxiety. A large review reported that eleven studies involving testing mental health outcomes from a single bout of treadmill running found significant reductions in state-trait anxiety and POMS subscales of anxiety.

Similarly, three studies investigating a single bout of track running and two studies with a single outdoor run also demonstrated a significant reduction in anxiety. 

In one of the outdoor studies, anxiety decreased, and mood increased after just a 10-minute jog.

In other words, even just running a mile or two—treadmill, track, trail, road—can reduce anxiety and leave you in a better mood.

Consistent running can also work wonders for your mental health and provide stress and anxiety relief. Generalized anxiety levels have also been shown to decrease over the duration of longer training programs—in the 10-20 week range.

A study found that a 12-week running training program for adults and children with clinical diagnoses of various mood disorders resulted in significant reductions in anxiety, stress, and depression.

A person running down the coast, smiling.

How Running Affects Your Stress and Anxiety

Though anecdotal and experimental evidence seems to clearly indicate that running and other forms of exercise can reduce stress and anxiety, the mechanisms of action aren’t as clearly well understood. 

We used to believe that the primary way in which exercise reduced anxiety is by releasing endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals. However, it seems like the release of these compounds during exercise may not actually cross the blood-brain barrier.

That said, the stress-busting effects of exercise aren’t all in your head. Findings suggest that regular exercise, such as consistent running, protects against the negative emotional consequences of stress, such as elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and circulating cortisol levels.

So how does running reduce stress and anxiety? There is various evidence and other theories as to how running reduces stress and anxiety, including the following:

A person running on grass, smiling.

#1: Running Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety By Reducing Cortisol

Cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones in the body. It is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Exercise can lower cortisol levels, which reduces the physical and emotional manifestations of stress.

An animal study demonstrated that exercise acts as a neuroprotective agent against the negative effects of stress on the brain. This may be partially due to the beneficial ways in which exercise can reduce the production and circulation of cortisol.

However, although moderate-intensity and low-intensity exercise, such as base-building aerobic runs, recovery runs, and easy runs, can lower cortisol, high-Intensity exercise, including racing, speed workouts, and hard runs, can increase circulating cortisol levels.

Therefore, it’s important to balance your training by alternating hard workouts with easier runs that are lower heart rate zones

A person running down the road, smiling.

#2: Running Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety By Giving You a Break

One of the simplest ways in which running can reduce stress is simply by physically removing you from a stressful situation. Running gives you a chance to unplug, go outside, connect with nature, and turn away from upsetting news, demanding managers, fighting children, and piles of bills.

We all need a break from the various responsibilities and demands for our attention, time, and physical and mental energy.

Your runs are for you. It’s your time. It’s your body. It’s all your decision.

With that said, running isn’t necessarily a selfish act, as going for your run can help you be the best “you” you can be for the rest of your day in every other aspect of your life.

#3: Running Can Increase Your Emotional Resilience to Stress

Running can help build your emotional resilience to acute bouts of stress. You can think of emotional resilience as a metaphorical protective armor you can wear against impending stressors. The more resilience you have, the less stress will affect you.

A person walking down the road with an arm stretched in the air, smiling.

#4: Running Reduces Stress By Rewiring the Brain

Exercise appears to rewire the brain and help regulate anxiety by triggering mechanisms in the ventral hippocampus of the brain that inhibits anxiety. In this way, running helps quiet the cascade of anxiety that originates in the brain.

#5: Running Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety By Increasing the Production of Endocannabinoids

Rather than the mood-boosting effects of running being a product of endorphins, they are likely largely due to endocannabinoids, which are natural cannabis-like compounds produced by the body that reduce pain, increase feelings of pleasure, and induce a sense of calm.

#6: Running Can Decrease Anxiety By Increasing Self-Esteem

Many people feel anxiety due to self-doubt, fearing they aren’t worthy, capable, attractive, or so on. 

Running can be a great way to dismantle feelings of “Imposter’s Syndrome” and reduce this type of anxiety because it can improve self-esteem, confidence, and self-efficacy.

When you feel fit and set and achieve goals, you feel better about your body, yourself, and your life.

Studies have found that marathon training increases self-esteem and psychological coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, and depression.

A person running down the road on a sunny day, smiling.

#7: Running Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety by Improving Sleep

Running expends energy and can leave you feeling tired and calm, so it can help you sleep better at night. 

One study with adolescents found that running 30 minutes in the morning for three weeks improved sleep quality and overall mood.

Poor sleep can increase stress and anxiety and leave you in an emotionally depleted state to handle stressors as they come. Therefore, if running helps you sleep better, you can get the rest your body needs to maintain emotional resilience.

#8: Running Can Reduce Stress By Altering Metabolism In the Brain

Although complex to explain, running seems to alter the metabolism of fatty acids in the hippocampus of the brain, which seems to have an effect on reducing anxiety, according to an animal study.

#9: Running Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety By Building a Sense of Community

Running can be a social activity where you can meet new friends and bond with others. Social connection can reduce stress and improve feelings of overall well-being.

A person running and smiling.

#10: Running Reduces Anxiety By Giving You Something to Rely On

Anxiety and stress are often exacerbated by “what ifs” and the unknown. Running is something concrete and actionable that you can control. You decide when, where, how far, how fast, and with whom you run.  

Running consistently, whether several days per week during your lunch break, every weekday morning before heading to work, or with your neighbor every evening when you get home at night, provides a stable routine or constant you can rely on in a life of unknowns.

Many runners find comfort in creating a running “habit” and enjoy the feeling of knowing at least one point of their day is going to be predictable and enjoyable.

Whether you enjoy running because of the many wonderful things it does for your physical health, or you appreciate the ways in which it can reduce stress and anxiety, putting in the miles is undoubtedly one of the best ways to live your best life.

If you are looking to start up, check out our Couch to 5k Training Plan and begin to reduce your stress and anxiety today!

A person running over a bridge, smiling.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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