Book Review: Running Is My Therapy

When I first ran across the book Running Is My Therapy:  Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier by Scott Douglas, I thought to myself: well duh. This seems like a no brainer. What could the author have written an entire book about on this subject that isn’t obvious?  Mental health has always been of great interest to me both professionally and personally, so I read up to see what else this book could tell me.

In a nutshell, the author reviews much of the science on running and mental health and well being, as well as personal anecdotes from his own experience with depression, specifically dysthymia.  The book is organized in a practical way covering topics such as how running improves brain health, treats depression and anxiety, improves mood and general well being, as well as how it works hand in hand with other treatments for depression and anxiety such as medications and counseling.  For me, I found it full of interesting tidbits that reminded me that running is far more than just good for my physical health. Some of the more fascinating scientific research reviews and notes from the book:

  • People who perform aerobic exercise regularly perform better on cognitive tasks. On the flip side, people who live a sedentary lifestyle generally do worse when performing cognitive tasks.
  • Running can produce the same changes in the brain as many antidepressant medications: specifically increasing neurotransmitters as well as creation of new brain cells. Even the hippocampus, a brain structure often shrunken in people with depression, increases in size over time after a regular exercise intervention.
  • Across several studies, regular exercise reduced anxiety, but only aerobic exercise such as running contributed to this reduction.
  • A couple different studies by the University of Maryland looked specifically at the calming effect of exercise. They found that when people were engaging in moderate intensity exercise, they were more drawn to pleasant images, but also paid closer attention to them to the point of not noticing the unpleasant images as often. They also found that exercise carried a prolonged calming effect, well past the end of the exercise session. Take away:  running resets your mind to a more positive mindset and the result is carried with you after you are finished;
  • At least 30 minutes of running provides the best mood boost, ideally at a conversational pace, but how you feel is most important. If you feel like running fast, the sense of accomplishing that goal can also boost your mood. So any running is better for your mood than no running.
  • Runners tend to participate in their own “talk therapy” as they run, looking ahead and running side by side with others, which can encourage open conversation. This puts runners at an advantage if they participate in professional counseling.  They already have some experience with regular open conversation and may even be more comfortable with it.
  • If you are struggling with depression, and running or other forms of self care are not working, consider that you may need extra help by a professional. Also, consider whether you are relying too heavily on running to support your mental health.
  • “Give back to running so it can keep helping you.” Listen to your body, incorporate stretching or yoga, eat well and sleep well, to avoid injury, so that running can always be a way to support and improve your mental health.

If you are interested in how running or exercise can support mental health, I recommend picking up this book.  I found it to be a information handbook for a runner who struggles with depression and anxiety, and is looking for a comprehensive resource on running as an effective intervention.  Most inspiring to me were the personal anecdotes from other runners: their experiences on how running helped them get out the door and utilize running to improve their lives “one run at a time.”

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