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Surprising Running Benefits For The Brain (Yes, Reducing Anxiety Is One Of Them)

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Feeling stressed? You may want to consider grabbing your sneakers and hitting the pavement. Yes, in addition to the obvious physical wins like lowering cholesterol and increasing energy, are a host of surprising running benefits that actually involve your brain.

And while this old-school form of cardio has long been stashed in the love-it-or-hate-it category, giving it a test-run (literally) might be worth considering, especially once you consider the number it does on your mental state.

Carrie McCusker, a Maine-based running coach, admits that she "hated" running until joining her high school's cross-country team — then she became hooked. "Socially, I ran with all kinds of people, which meant I had a wide range of friends," she says. "I got to see amazing mountainous trails, woods, [and had] all kinds of nature experiences."

Although McCusker started the sport for the competitive component, she says the experience of running has been quite transformative throughout the years. "During stressful times in raising small children and balancing life, there is nothing like the meditation and endorphin rush of a good run," she shares, adding that it's a mental escape as well as a physical one. "When you run, you have time to let your mind run, as well. So many things that seem like issues before I get moving are either solved or seem small and unimportant after a run."

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Connie Yip, a psychiatric nurse practitioner based in New York City, says that the surge of contentment and clarity that follows a run is backed up by science. "Exercise releases natural endorphins, which feel good, like endogenous cannabinoids," she explains. What's more, it lowers anxiety-causing stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, she adds.

Then, there's the feeling of accomplishment and well-earned fatigue that comes with finishing a solid jog or sprint. If you burn enough energy physically, you'll have less to spend on worrying. "You can feel tired, sore, sad, and stressed, but once you start sweating and get your heart rate up ... [the stress is] all gone and you’re fresh," explains Yip.

Sara Tan, senior west coast fashion and beauty editor for Bustle, says that she recently rediscovered her love for the classic exercise. Although she was a runner all through middle school and college, her practice fizzled until she picked it up again this year, when she began training for races.

Now, Tan has "a newfound love and appreciation" for the cardio workout. "Running makes me feel strong and centered, and it's the best stress-reliever, ever," she explains. "I may not feel excited about a run when I start it, but I never regret doing it — I always feel 100 times better after."

Yip points out that the benefits of running (and exercise in general) are so powerful, the American Psychiatric Association recommends the practice for people suffering from depression. "Exercising regularly can also help reduce stress and anxiety," she adds. What's more, it may decrease inflammation, specifically C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin, which, Yip says, is associated with depression.

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"[Running] increases our feeling of agency and counteracts the powerlessness that depression can induce," Yip continues. "It’s a healthy way to cope that simultaneously burns off that excess energy of anxiety, tension of stress, and heaviness of depression."

If you're ready to lace up your sneakers and go, McCusker has this advice for first-time joggers:

  • Get the right shoes and clothing. "You want to be comfortable."
  • Be patient. "Starting with a walk/run and moving to a full run is a good way to go."
  • Be consistent. "You’ve got to get out there three to four days a week, minimum, to really allow the adaptations to take hold."
  • Vary terrain. "If you can, do trail and pavement — and even treadmill [running]. Mixing it up is good for mind and body."
  • Find running friends. "Having a group or one to two friends to chat and run with (even once a week) makes for a whole different experience."
  • Ask for help. "If something doesn’t feel right, maybe it isn’t. Ask for help from a coach or a good physical therapist."

Tan also has a few suggestions for anyone who wants to pick up the pace. "Start slow," she advises. "Don't just run on the treadmill. Even if it's cold outside, try running outdoors — it's way more interesting and will make your workout more enjoyable."

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