Ever since I discovered firsthand the powerful effects of running on mental health, I am continually looking for new research to confirm my experience.
That running can be a powerful tool for treating mental health disorders.
In 2018 Scott Douglass wrote the book “Running Is My Therapy.” It combines research and personal anecdotes to describe how running helps people “relieve stress and anxiety, fight depression, ditch bad habits, and live happier.”
The author is a long-time runner and running writer diagnosed with dysthymia – chronic low-grade depression. Maybe that is why most of the book’s content centers around what running can do for people with depression. Anxiety is also touched on, albeit to a smaller extent.
The book is nicely divided into 12 chapters. Each has a particular focus.
How Running Changes The Brain
In chapter 1, Douglas explains the science behind running’s positive effects on the brain and argues that we need to take care of our brains like we need to take care of our bodies.
It is known that running changes the brain in a similar way anti-depressants do. Furthermore, runners tend to be smarter and more creative than sedentary people.
The exact mechanisms, however, of running’s brain-changing power are not yet fully understood.
What is clear is that several related systems are affected at once. Running leads, among other things, to an increased blood flow to the brain and an increase in several neurotransmitters.
How Running Helps People With Depression And Anxiety
Chapters 2 to 4 describe how running helps people with depression, anxiety and generally improves your mood.
It consists of many personal stories and touches on the similarities between depression and anxiety. Douglas describes what both disorders mean for the people affected and gives insights into his own struggles with depression.
He makes a compelling case for using running as a treatment option. Some countries already recommend exercise as first-line treatment and use medication and psychotherapy only in conjunction for more severe cases.
How Running Works In Conjunction With Other Therapies
In chapters 5 to 8, the author explores the interaction between running and other forms of therapy.
He argues that runners have an advantage when it comes to other treatment options.
Because as runners, we are already familiar with specific ways of thinking and behaviors similar to common interventions for depression and anxiety, such as talk therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and mindfulness practices.
For example, running in groups and chatting about life during these runs can be considered talk therapy. This, in turn, puts runners at an advantage should they seek out professional counseling. Due to their running chatters, they may be more comfortable with open conversation and sharing their experiences.
A similar argument is made for CBT.
Using this form of cognitive therapy, you learn to challenge your negative thoughts and beliefs. You learn to reframe them or replace them with more helpful ones.
The author argues that runners are already familiar with this because we use self-talk during runs to push through tough workouts or races.
Douglas also describes the interaction between taking medication and running performance.
He presents the science and his own and other runners’ experience with taking medication. Famous examples include Alberto Salazar, who used anti-depressants during his comeback to win the Comrades Ultramarathon in 1994.
While Douglas is a proponent for taking medication if necessary, he includes personal stories and reasonings from people who have depression or anxiety and choose not to use drugs.
How Running Can Help You Build A Meaningful Life
Chapters 9 to 11 are a nice collection of personal stories and insights on how running can help build meaningful friendships, achieve goals, and create an overall healthy lifestyle.
In the last chapter, Douglas discusses what running can and can not do for your mental well-being.
I especially like this part of the book because, while powerful, running is not praised as a be all end all solution to mental health issues.
Instead, the author clearly describes the limits of using exercise to manage depression and anxiety.
He uses the analogy of a spouse whose job is not to make you happy. You should see running as a “wellspring of support, not something you outsource your well-being to.”
Furthermore, he touches on being overly reliant on running to manage one’s mental health and how to develop the right relationship with running.
This not only includes keeping running in perspective but also giving back to running.
By “giving back,” Douglas means to live a lifestyle that is conducive to running. He argues for making choices that ensure that you can continue to run year after year and keep enjoying the many mental health benefits. Some of these choices are stretching, eating nourishing foods, and getting adequate sleep.
Finally, the appendix is a quick overview on how to use running to manage mental health and answers questions such as when to run, where, and how fast.
Together with the references to cited research, it makes for a well-rounded conclusion of an insightful book.
All in all, “Running Is My Therapy” is a fairly quick read and gives a comprehensive overview of the many mental health benefits of the sport.
The personal anecdotes of runners complement the research-based facts nicely.
This book is a great resource and starting point if you want to explore running and mental health.