Many runners start running because they are seeking to improve their overall health or lifestyle. What they don’t realize, is that the benefits of running go far beyond the usual goals of weight loss. There are an incredible amount of physical, mental, and emotional benefits.
The following sections breakdown compelling reasons and evidence of how running positively affects your overall well-being. Join those who decide to lace up their shoes and get out the door for a few miles. Notice that I stated a “few miles” and not a marathon. You don’t need, and shouldn’t pound away at your max limits, to enjoy these great benefits. Rather focus to getting into a good habit of running that you can maintain.
Physical Benefits of Running
The first thing that comes to mind when running for physical benefits is weight loss. However, there are several other substantial benefits. This includes knee strength and bone mass, lowering cancer risk, reducing cardiovascular/heart disease risk, combating or managing diabetes, lowering blood pressure (hypertension), and generally living longer by an overall healthier body.
IMPORTANT: Before you start your running plan, or any exercise for that matter, you must have a physical with your doctor to ensure that they are no underlying health issues, such as a heart disorder.
Weight Loss by Running
Weight loss by running is one of the most common benefits of running. Regular exercise and burning of calories assists with losing weight. Notice that I state, assists and is not the only aspect to an overall health weight loss routine. When I was competing, I was on a 4,000 calorie a day diet. I didn’t just eat anything I wanted (imagine eating enough chocolate to meet 4,000 calories a day!). Rather I got the right mix of protein, carbs, vegetables, etc. and watched any alcohol intake. Running is one of the easiest ways to start burning calories. It usually starts to drive better dietary habits that support sustainable weight loss.
Knee Strength and Bone Mass by Running
Time and time again you may have been warned that running will hurt your knees. In reality, running strengthens your bones by adding bone mass. This is especially important for those who want to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and natural age related bone loss. As you run, you are putting extra load on your lower body. This creates bone mass as it adapts to the effort it is under. To help strengthen bones in your upper body, a weight training routine would assist in increasing bone mass, which is why it is critical that your running plan is about total body fitness. We will discuss cross training/total body fitness later.
Lower Cancer Risk by Running
This is a touchy topic, so to be clear, running does not cure cancer. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Those already stricken with this horrible disease have found an increase in the quality of their life by running while undergoing cancer treatment. If you are in a battle with cancer and want to see if running will help, consult with your physician. They can determine if it will provide the desired benefits, and exactly what level of running is right for you.
Reducing Cardiovascular/Heart Disease Risk by Running
Of all the muscles you may be working out while running, your heart is at the center. It pumps away as you glide along the streets, hills, and woods. Most runners feel like their lungs are getting taxed. However, the heart is getting stronger and can start pumping more blood with each beat.
Since the heart is part of the greater cardiovascular system, your veins and arteries will be less likely to have blockages and clots. They stretch for the higher level of blood flow occurring during a run. This stretching allows the veins and arteries to be more elastic in nature, a perfect complement to a stronger heart. This combined effect should reduce your cardiovascular disease risk.
Combating or Managing Diabetes by Running
Running is great for helping keep your body in a health weight range. It decreases your risk for getting Type 2 Diabetes. If you already have Type 2 Diabetes, the effect of running on blood sugar levels can help managing this difficult disease. In either case, consult with your doctor before starting a running program to determine what level of running is right for combating diabetes.
Lowering Blood Pressure (Hypertension) by Running
Consistency is one of the most important parts of successful running (we will discuss running consistency in more detail soon). It is also a factor in reducing your blood pressure (hypertension). Integrating moderate exercise three to six times a week into your life can lower blood pressure within a few weeks.
Be warned that blood pressure levels will quickly rise back up if you stop running. Given this, you can quickly see why a manageable running plan is so critical for addressing health issues like blood pressure. If you can’t maintain the program, you will not enjoy the long term benefits.
Living Longer by Running
The overall effect running has on one’s health is simply amazing. This goes beyond the pure exercise of running and into lifestyle changes that occur as a result of this higher level of activity. Smokers may quit smoking as it conflicts with running. Positive dietary changes tend to occur out of the need to support a healthy running program.
From a pure exercise standpoint, runners who worked out for 30 minutes, at least 5 times a week, gained years to their life according to a few studies. This varies upon the individual and any conditions they may have. As an example, those with heart disease gained 4 years on average by running, while cancer survivors gained 5.
Mental and Emotional Benefits of Running
Beyond the pure physical benefits of running, your mental and emotional health are also affected. Running is as much mental as it is physical, and if you are not emotionally engaged, it is harder to run. Just ask anyone how hard it is sometimes to wake up early for a run!.
As you start running you may find it becomes habit forming in a positive way. You literally strengthen your strongest muscle (the brain). Running eases stress and enhance your mood. This assists in the fight against the silent killer of depression.
Preventing Mental Decline by Running
Keeping your mental fortitude as you age is an upmost concern. Running can contribute to reducing mental decline as the overall brain function for activities. This includes selective attention, planning, organization, concentration, and tasks switching are supported. Stroke victims have found benefits as well since studies have determined that regular exercise, such as running, can improve memory, judgement, and critical thinking by upwards of 50%.
Given that your brain is your strongest muscle, it only makes sense to care for it as much as the rest of your body. Giving it the physical workout it requires to release the all-important BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) protein. This protein acts as a protective and reparative mechanism, that when coupled with endorphins, provides the “kick” your brain hungers for.
Beyond the protection and reparative aspects provided by BDNF, it also actuates the conversion of brain stem cells into neurons. The net neural activity strengthened by running not only provides new neurons, but can assist with neuron depletion. Since the newer neurons tend to live longer in a healthier neurology supported by increased blood flow to the brain.
Mood Enhancement and Stress Release by Running
Feeling stressed or a little “down”? Running could be just what you need to start feeling better. Numerous studies have found that running for 30 minutes helps lower anxiety and stress. It also raises concentration, the quality of sleep, and overall mood far after the daily workout is complete.
While you may be quick to dismiss or even believe that runners enjoying a “runners high” are truly addicted to some sort of drug, they may actually be enjoying the release of hormones called endocannabinoids. More commonly known as feel good hormones, this results from their running. Given this and the overall mood enhancing effects of running, it should come as no surprise that it has addictive qualities closely mirroring the reward mechanisms of the brain stimulated by addictive drugs. Except that running can be good for you as long as you don’t overdo it.
Fighting Depression by Running
Speak to your doctor before beginning a running routine if you are concerned, or have been diagnosed with depression. This “silent killer” is a complex disease that may require multiple angles to get under control. There are two aspects to fighting depression by running, preventative and as treatment. Both of these would entail the same amount and type of running but cross cut into the straight physical, self-perception, and support.
Running releases powerful endorphins to help lift mood while increasing the number of cells in the hippocampus region of the brain. Studies found that those suffering from depression have fewer cells in the hippocampus. Beyond the endorphin and cell increase from running, serotonin levels are also affected. This brain chemical is responsible for a range of neural functions.
This includes sleep, mood, memory, pain tolerance, and the regulation of body temperature. It is the counter punch to cortisol, a stress hormone found to be higher in those with depression. Taking these factors into account, the pure physical benefits of fighting depression by running make it worth getting out the door for a few miles.
Beyond the physical effects of running on depression, self-perception/self-esteem is boosted as a byproduct of running. This also aids in the fight against depression and feelings of low worth. As your body begins to change, whether that is from losing weight or gaining lean muscle, you start to feel more confident and perceive yourself with more value. Couple this with the feeling after meeting goals, such as running your first 5K, and your confidence will start to rise. It is a cycle of increasing worth that can help you on the “tough” days of battling depression.
Be aware, however, that running injuries or setbacks may occur and don’t let these get you down. You will either heal and get back to running or find a different exercise routine. In either case, maintain close contact with your doctor to keep them informed of your fight against depression by running.
While you may run alone, you are never alone as a runner. The running community is one of the most strong and vibrant support communities out there. We all share the similar pain and victories that come along with the miles. In this community, you will find the support (and even phone calls/texts) to get out of bed in the morning to run with a group if so choose. The cheers at a race, no matter what your speed is, are powerful.
Prepare to be filled with the overall vibe of fellow runners enjoying the same benefits you may be seeking. If you are looking for a running club to help support your transition into, and maintenance of running, the Road Runners Club of America may be a great start.
How to Take Your First Steps to Becoming a Runner
Now that you’ve seen all the incredible benefits of running, the first question is “okay, how do I become a runner?” There are a number of considerations, as initially it may feel overwhelming, but the “How to Start Running – Tips for Beginners and Joggers” guide will give you an excellent start with a focus on making running a lifelong pursuit.