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Improving your mental health through running: part 1

Kim Dawson, professor of sport psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, explains how running improves your mental health and why you should get outside this winter

As the cold weather continues to set in and the days remain short, this is the time of year when many of us struggle with our mental health. This year in particular is challenging since most of our usual opportunities to get out and socialize are off-limits. In 2021 more people than ever before are turning to running, not only to improve their physical health, but to boost their mood as well. We spoke with Kim Dawson, PhD, professor of sport psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, to understand how running benefits your mental health and why you should ditch the treadmill and run outside this winter.

Dr. Kim Dawson

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How does running improve your mental health?

Dawson says there is no one reason that explains how running improves your mental health. While there are chemical changes that happen in the brain when we exercise, such as the release of dopamine or serotonin (both feel-good or “happy” hormones), she explains that there are many other reasons why running makes people feel good. 

For some of us, running serves as a distraction that takes us away from the problems of our world and thus makes us feel better. It can also provide us with a social opportunity if we’re running with a friend or group. For others, Dawson adds, running can be a type of “mastery” experience that’s related to mental health. 

“The thing that people need to realize is that it’s so vast and it can contribute in so many different ways,” says Dawson, “so you have to figure out what the triggers are for your mental health and how can running fulfill some of those things for you?”

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The case for running outside

When working with runners, Dawson always tells them that they “picked a really good sport to move [their] bodies and to actually be outside to do it.” Just like running, being outside can improve your mental health for a variety of reasons. Dawson points out that when we go outside we tend to be with people and we tend to be moving in a way that changes our brain and our mood. She highlights three theories that explain why exercise outdoors can improve your mental health even more than doing the same thing indoors.

The Restoration Theory says the brain needs an opportunity to restore itself. Nature tends to be less fast-paced, less kinetic and less technologically-charged than when we’re inside, and that alone could benefit our mental health. 

Anthropological theories, Dawson says, argue that man was meant to be outdoors and was meant to move. This is what our early ancestors did, so it feels common to us and we like doing it. Similarly, biological theories suggest that humans are connected with nature, which is why we love being in nature. Many runners, for example, say they love to feel the air in their lungs, to smell the outdoors and to hear the sounds going on outside. 

Winter Running Injuries

What does this mean? If you want to boost your mental health this winter, you’re better off braving the cold and getting outside rather than logging your miles on the treadmill.

“When you run on the treadmill you get the physical bang but you don’t get the emotional side at all,” says Dawson.

Of course, there are several things to consider before heading outside for a winter run, such as whether the conditions are safe and if you have the proper clothing to keep you warm, but as long as you’re prepared for the elements and you practice good judgement, outdoor running can help you beat the winter blues and help you enjoy the season.

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