You hit the pavement to improve your cardiovascular health, build muscle and, on occasion, to make up for that extra slice of chocolate cake. But did you know that while you're taking care of your body, you're also taking care of your mind?
Runners have praised the great feeling of a runner's high for years. As you begin to run, your heart starts pumping harder and pushing blood through your body at a faster rate. Your respiratory system starts working harder and you mentally prepare yourself for active exercise. As you continue to push yourself to go harder and faster, your body starts releasing endorphins. These hormones act as a stimulant in the body, resulting in what many call a "natural high."
While experiencing a runner's high is one of the best ways to feel happy and relaxed, running and other forms of vigorous exercise actually provides a number of mental health benefits:
Stress management. Running can control stress and boost the body's ability to deal with existing mental tension. Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that helps moderate the brain's response to stress.
The sunshine vitamin. Taking your run outside on a sunny day helps your body produce vitamin D, a nutrient that can lessen your likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.
Prevention of cognitive decline. While running doesn't "cure" Alzheimer's, it may help boost the brain's ability to reduce and slow the cognitive decline that begins after age 45. Working out, especially between ages 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and inhibits degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.
A calmer state of mind. The chemicals released during and after running can help people experiencing anxiety feel calmer. Whether you're hopping on a treadmill, track, trail, or sidewalk, getting your body moving is a healthy way of coping with tough times.
Brainpower boost. Cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells and improve overall brain performance. A strong run raises levels of a brain-derived protein in the body believed to help with decision-making, higher thinking, and learning.
A faster track to dreamland. For some, a moderate run can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia. Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body's core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it's time to sleep.
Increased productivity. Feeling unmotivated? The solution might be just a short run away. Research shows that workers who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than peers who are less active.
While busy schedules can make it tough to squeeze in a gym session in the middle of the day, some experts believe that midday is the ideal time for a workout due to the body's circadian rhythms.
Greater creativity. A heart-pumping run can boost creativity for up to two hours afterward. Rather than staring at the blank page waiting for an excellent idea to fall from the sky, get those legs moving and refresh your body and brain at the same time.
So the next time you’re struggling to get out of bed for your morning run or thinking about skipping the gym, remember all the benefits you'll enjoy - head to toe.