Running has important positive implications for mental health, particularly depression and anxiety disorders,” note study authors in a comprehensive study review in which “running” included jogging, sprinting, marathon running, orienteering and treadmill running.

Findings revealed an impact on multiple aspects of mental health, with positive—as well as adverse—outcomes. University of Edinburgh researchers in Scotland reviewed 116 studies to illuminate what’s known about running and mental health and to highlight knowledge gaps and research priorities.

In addition to benefiting multiple physical health markers, running influences depression, anxiety, self-efficacy, stress, well-being, self-concept, self-esteem, mood, eating disorders and addiction. In 16 of 47 studies that compared runners with nonrunners, runners had lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress, greater well-being, and better mood. In studies with runners only, some adverse effects surfaced, including exercise addiction and eating disorders. Habitual or long-term recreational running was linked mostly with positive mental health associations. In contrast, there were associations between high or extreme levels of running and poor health.

In studies that compared different settings and multiple running bouts, findings suggested that running improves mood; that outdoor running benefits mood more than indoor running; and that most running intensities improve mood, except when intensity is markedly above lactate threshold.

Research gaps exist relating to those under 18 or over 45, clinical populations, and diverse demographics. Limitations of the current study included its small sample sizes and unclear mental health outcome measurements. For future trials, study authors recommend clear comparisons of running types, settings and intensities in relation to specific mental health outcomes.

The study is available in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2020; 17 [21], 8059).