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Marisa HeinzeMarch 27, 2023

Running to fight depression - an effective way?

Glumness, lack of drive, constant inner restlessness – these are typical symptoms of depression. The way out of this mental illness is often through psychotherapy in combination with medication. However, the healing effect of running to fight depression has been scientifically proven and documented in various studies.
The reasons for this can be explained both neurobiologically and psychologically. In the following article we will show you why jogging can be an effective weapon against depression and what such an "exercise therapy" might look like.

Why running helps against depression

From childhood onwards, movement is fundamental in all areas of life: it is the basis for all complex actions. Through movement we learn about our self-efficacy and feel alive. On the one hand, movement is a necessity to master everyday life, to get around and to act purposefully. On the other hand, we humans also move for pleasure, which can be observed time and again, especially in children. Movement in general is therefore essential for life. It helps to sustain it, but also to enjoy it.

There are many reasons why running can be effective against depression:

1) Physical exercise releases the hormone serotonin, which is also known in everyday language as the happiness hormone. Scientific studies indicate that there could be a connection between a reduced serotonin level and a depressive illness. Thus, raising serotonin in the body - as is done through running - can be seen as a natural therapy.
2) The monotonous, repetitive movement you perform when running can have a meditative effect. The natural movement relieves tension in the body, which also affects the brain and psyche and can contribute to an inner calmness.
3) Regular runs increase your fitness and endurance. This sense of achievement gives many people a new, positive feeling of self-efficacy, as their own efforts and self-motivation make them feel better and help them achieve goals.
4) Physical and psychological well-being are closely linked. The effects of exercise can be noticeable after only a few sessions through perceptible muscle growth as well as an improved metabolism and better blood circulation. The positive bodily feeling also transfers to the psyche. It is not without reason that it is said that a healthy mind lives in a healthy body.

Time to act: combating secondary diseases of depression through running

According to the German Depressive Aid Association, depression statistically affects about one in five people in Germany. The number of unreported cases is estimated to be much higher. Since depression mainly manifests itself in psychological symptoms, many people underestimate the seriousness of this illness. However, those affected suffer no less than patients with physical complaints and it is not uncommon for the psychological suffering to be supplemented by physical symptoms.
Thus, in addition to loss of sleep and appetite, cardiovascular diseases, heart diseases, and others are effects of a depression. Diabetes is also more common in people who suffer from a mental illness. In such cases, running turns out to be particularly effective against depression.
Exercise not only strengthens the psyche, it also has a positive effect on the physical condition. Regular exercise contributes decisively to fat loss and is a natural remedy against unhealthy belly fat or heart fat. In addition, exercise leads to improved oxygen saturation in the blood, supports muscle development and strengthens tendons and joints.

Jogging to combat depression - But how?

Exercise in general can contribute to an increased sense of well-being in almost all situations. But why is running particularly suitable as a therapy against depression?
  • Jogging is a rather minimalist sport in terms of the equipment you need. You need nothing more than a pair of sports shoes and comfortable clothes and you are ready to go.
  • You don't have to be particularly athletic to go jogging, and you don't need much previous experience. Running is a natural movement that comes intuitively to human beings.
  • Jogging can be most effective against depression when it takes place outdoors. Outdoors, the body has the chance to take in more oxygen and transport it to the brain via the blood. As a result, not only the ability to concentrate is increased, but stress is also reduced.
  • Especially for beginners, who are just discovering jogging against depression, it is important not to set too high a goal. The joy of movement has a liberating effect. Goals that are too ambitious can cause unwanted stress.
  • Running with others affected by depression or in a running club can also be advisable. The company of like-minded people is good for most; social contacts strengthen self-confidence. The group can also help you keep motivated.

The Numbers Speak for Themselves

Various scientific studies suggest that running is indeed an effective remedy for depression. In a meta-analysis comparing more than 1,500 studies on the topic, the experts concluded that, on average, sport has a comparable effect to anti-depressants or psychotherapies. Since exercise does not have any side effects, many doctors and therapists recommend using exercise therapy as a supplement in the fight against depression.
There is still no consensus on how much exercise is advisable and how long the exercise session should last. However, small studies have already shown that even a small increase in exercise time can have a positive effect. In 2017, a Norwegian study showed that one hour of exercise per week alone could have a curative effect against depression in one in eight of those affected.
It is advisable to keep your sessions at a moderate intensity in order to combat depression. Relaxed jogging should therefore take place at around 50-60% of your maximum heart rate. Exercise in this range can help reduce stress. Fat burning also takes place at this level. If you increase your activity to 80% or more, it can cause additional stress to the body. So, keep your run relaxed to be able to reduce tensions mentally as well as physically.
Overall, people who exercise regularly fall ill significantly less often. This shows that exercise can not only be effective against depression, but that it can also protect against and prevent various diseases.

Contact Points for Those Affected

Running to combat depression is not yet widespread as a form of therapy. However, there are more and more initiatives and projects that offer running groups especially for depressed people and their relatives. Often in cooperation with special running therapists or sports therapists, these meetings offer a contact point for those affected. Usually, such regular meetings can also bring a certain structure into life, apart from the exercise aspect. Contact with other people can also give impetus and new courage to face life.
A model project in several Rhineland-Palatinate cities confirmed this. The project "Running against depression - giving depression a leg up", which was carried out in 2015 to 2016, was a model for many other regions.
An overview of running groups and corresponding events can be found, for example, on the website of the Stiftung Deutsche Depressionshilfe.

Running to fight depression - an effective way!

In summary, it can be said that jogging against depression is certainly not a panacea, but it has been proven to have positive effects. Exercise in general, and running in particular, can be used both preventively and curatively to avoid, alleviate or even cure depressive illnesses.
The reasons for this are, on the one hand, various physical benefits: among other things, exercise improves the cardiovascular system, increases the resilience of the musculoskeletal system and releases certain messenger substances that influence our mood positively.
Jogging against depression is also beneficial on an emotional level. It usually leads to increased self-efficacy, an improved body image and thus self-esteem. In a group, with a partner or alone - exercise, especially outdoors, has a similar effect to therapy. The side effects are consistently positive: increased endurance, muscle building, increased ability to concentrate, the strengthening of the immune system and improved moods.