Q+A: Will running help me overcome depression?

Our experts answer real-life questions

Posted: 13 February 2006
by Dr Victor Thompson

Q I love running but two years ago my motivation started to slip and I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I am recovering well, and would like to start running again. My therapist says the same amount of activity every day will help stabilise my mood. As I shouldn’t run every day – at least to start with – how can I maintain this important balance of activity and rest every day?

A To successfully return to running, recognise that your fitness will have dropped. Ward off any negative thoughts by being realistic and positive about how long it will take to get back to your previous condition. Keep the amount of activity you do consistent day-to-day by coming up with a couple of alternatives to running. You could run for 30 minutes on day one, walk for 30 minutes on day two and stretch for 30 minutes on day three. Try to do the activity at the same time every day: you’re more likely to stick with it.

Run in a pleasant environment and focus on enjoying what you see and hear and not on your times or heart rate. The run will be stimulating and you’ll feel a sense of achievement when you finish because you will have done something for yourself. Only increase the time you spend running and the number of days you run after consulting your therapist – you don’t want to overdo it, or risk an injury, because coping with setbacks will be more of a challenge if you are depressed.

Recognise your improvements. Keep your goals modest. Reward yourself for just going out and running and sticking to your new fitness routine. This will help you have a successful reintroduction to running, minimise injury risk, and provide you with a greater sense of enjoyment.

Dr Victor Thompson, Clinical Sports Psychologist

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i started running and weight training in 2000 when i lost my baby 5 months into my pregnany. i felt very depressed for a long time but needed something to concentrate on. i found exercise extremely helpful and of benefit. to cut a very long story short i also lost an 11 week old little girl from cot death in 1989 and consquently suffered from panic disorder amonst other problems for a long ,long time. personally i feel that running has helped me a great deal and is one of my main ways of dealing with my problems . i have felt much better since i began exercising and it gives me something to focus on . i now go for a run whenever i feel low and find it lifts my mood 99% of the time. i am not saying exercise is the answer for everyone and indeed not the whole of the answer for my own problems but i do feel that it can be very useful as a mood lifter as well of course of being very healthy. tracey.
PS i think runnings great for your self esteem also as each time you complete a new challenge, however large or how small it is you can feel good about things ...well i do anyway..
Posted: 26/06/2006 at 23:01

Good for you darlin

running is my rock too
Posted: 26/06/2006 at 23:02

Totally agree with you Tracey - running usually lifts me out of a black mood. Great stress reliever - my main reason to run.
Posted: 27/06/2006 at 10:21

I have a history of depression and find it helps too. Only I do think I can sometimes use it as an excuse to escape from things I should really be getting done. So have to watch that!
Posted: 27/06/2006 at 10:22

i know what you mean about making excuses rowan, i do that a lot,though i do try not to let myself get away with things quite so easily these days. i still have anxiety problems that are made worse when i am around people and i still find it hard to go to the gym and exercise classes. it sounds a bit strange but if i miss going for a week i find it really difficult not to make excuses to avoid going back. i missed all classes last weeek and am now feeling stressed about going tonight.... i prefer running because i jog alone, therefore no pressure. (easy way out though and i have found avoidance makes you worse in the long run)

must go to class tonite,must go to class tonite
Posted: 27/06/2006 at 11:51

My lifes been a bit crap for the past couple of years, well probably longer really; family deaths, work stuff, relationship problems, just about everything really. I too sometimes dont feel like going to the gym/for a run, but always feel better if I do. I still find life hard and running is no solution for me, in fact I find it gives me something else to worry about if I dont stick to my training plan!! But when I look back on all my races and see how much I have achieved it gives me a lift.
Posted: 27/06/2006 at 11:57

i am sorry you have had such a crap time stoxy.i also know what you mean about feeling bad if you dont stick to things, the more you do in life the more you feel you can fail at. This however is the wrong way ,in my eyes, to look at it. I have spent many years avoiding things and now i look back and realize that although that time has gone i can still try to be more postive. This is very hard sometimes(most) as i have always been a bit(a lot ) on the negative side. there will always be things that i feel i havent done well enough at, tried hard enough at, but theres nothing to lose by trying and every thing to gain......anyway sorry for going on just got carried away...running isnt a solution but as you said when you look back you realize what you have achieved.. its gotta be good
Posted: 27/06/2006 at 12:57

running also increases the serotonin levels in our brains. serotonin is the chemical which makes us happy. a lot of GP's are being advised to prescribe exercise for mild to moderate depression. so carry on running
Posted: 27/06/2006 at 13:46

tracey, I was very sorry to read about your losses. I haven't been in your position but I gather that the grieving is awful. I'm glad you find the running a benefit. As with others, I would list the (mental) health benefits as the main reason for my running.
I think it's good to run because it feels good. Fast times are great but enjoying the gift of physically being able to run is a wonderful sense of freedom. I hope you continue to enjoy going out & not only when you feel low.

Posted: 28/06/2006 at 07:59

thanks for your message, i do go running when i feel low but i do also go when i feel good so alls well. also i dont do fast times unfortunately....mind you who cares ,i dont.. i still love it..
Posted: 28/06/2006 at 10:01

Tracey I'm not that good around people either (I'll talk to anyone, but have problems taking it further and don't like crowds), so I get what you are saying. Funnily though running is getting me out and with people more. Instead of just being stuck at home I've been out to training events and I'm starting going to support other runners at events I'm not even doing myself.

Plus it makes me appreciate where I live more. I used to totally hate living in London, but it's better now I can get out and about and see bits of it I wouldn't have otherwise like the canals and Lea Valley.
Posted: 28/06/2006 at 12:04

i know what you mean i have been to a few races... i dont have trouble talking to people in passing,(in fact people say i'm very smiley and appear very confident) i have a problem when i feel trapped in one room or people get too close. whenever i know i have to stay in one place i feel really stressed!!!

the race thing is nice as i get to be part of a group and chat without feeling trapped. my husband always takes me to races and that is great as i have his support. in fact my hubby who never did any running has started as he says he might as well since he's there....
i'm glad you are getting out and about more and its nice that you now appreciate where you live. Hope you continue make friends, welldone..
Posted: 28/06/2006 at 15:28

Hi TS Iknow exactly wear you comeing from enjoy your self!
Posted: 28/06/2006 at 15:41

Hi Tracey. I was so sorry to read about your losses, I cannot even imagine what the grief must be like.

I too, like so many on this website have been plagued with various problems throughout my life. For the past 20 years these have been fears and phobias some only mild, some severe, some temporary and some that have been with me since childhood. These have included, (please don't laugh), the stars, cows, dogs, broken glass, flying, travel of any kind, the dark, death, illness and many, many more. I started running about a year and a half ago and I agree that after a run (really a very slow plod) my mood is very much lifted and I feel great. What I didn't expect was that for some reason my fears seem to be diminishing, the only thing I can put this down to is running, nothing else has changed. My biggie is dogs and this really interferes with my life. If I am out walking anywhere and see a dog I immediately start hyperventillating and need an escape route urgently. Because of this I have never been able to go for a walk or run straight from my own front door choosing instead to drive into town and go from there where 1. dogs will generally be on leads and 2. I can dart into a shop/pub/building of some sort if I meet an unaccompanied one. I have now however passed a milestone. On Friday I decided to hell with it and ran up a residential street that I haven't been on since I was courting 25 years ago and this morning at 6:15 I was coming round the back of our local leisure centre when I spotted a woman with a large boxer off his lead. Usually my immediate reaction would be to go in the other direction very quickly but I thought, she has seen me, if that dog is a biter she would have put him back on the lead and I just kept on running, he didn't bite! On top of all that I made a spur of the minute snap decision to agree to go to visit friends in Germany to stop my brother nagging and booked two flights for me and hubbie for the end of July! I hope I don't get to the airport and think, I can't do this! I think some kind of 'I can run, therefore I can' mentality has taknen over. I always envied people out running but never thought I would be able to do it, my progress has been slow but it has been progress all the same.

Jeez I am embarrassed by the length of this ramble, hope I haven't bored you all to death!
Posted: 28/06/2006 at 20:05

I understand about the dogs
My running routes are dictated by them
Posted: 28/06/2006 at 20:07

I hate/love dogs. Love the ones I know, hate the bas***d biters/scary threatening ones!
Posted: 29/06/2006 at 00:37

I adore dogs- I picked up my first stray when I was 18 months old- that charisma!:)

On a more serious note, I think a lot of what helps with running is also the ritualistic aspect of it- you have a certain routine each time which you follow!
Posted: 29/06/2006 at 01:31

I'm sorry to hear about your losses Tracey and Stoxy.

I've always suffered from depression and nagging doubts about my ability to do anything. Following my dad's death (which also coincided with my 40th) I was overcome with a burning desire to change everything about my life and 2 1/2 years later I live in a different, very beautiful part of the country, I have changed my career, given up smoking .... and more recently, started running and lost some weight and I just continue to feel better.

I started a thread in despair at something going on in my life on Sunday and the support on there was incredible and instead of sinking into that despair (as I usually would have) I took action to turn things around and make things better.

Not only does running help my moods and self esteem but the forums are a wonderful source of support too.

Tracey, brilliant news about you facing your fears and each time you face one, it will easier to face the next one ... you've done it once, you can do it again. I hope you really enjoy Germany. xxx
Posted: 29/06/2006 at 07:23

hi moomoo. my running never has any routine to it. i never plan my runs and go to all differant places and for various lenghts of time depending on my mood.(thats what i like about it, i hate being tied down) fortunately i am able to do this as i havent been able to work the last few years. when i am at work again i suppose i will have to commit to a rountine.

Beans , i used to have OCD so i know what you mean about your phobias and how they can and do rule your life. i now have two dogs which i would no way on this earth have done ten years ago ,so things do change and i have found the only way forward(unfotunately,there is no other way)is to face up to the things that frighten you. slowly though dont rush,and get support. Anyway, you seem to be doing great,and well done for ruuning past that dog......
Posted: 29/06/2006 at 10:01

well done with the changes you have made. i hope you continue to feel well.
Posted: 29/06/2006 at 10:05

Hiya Anthony...

As well as all the things mentioned so far, I feel what running has given me is a feeling of independence.

When I am out there, running through the fields or streets or by a river, it is me who is doing it, on my own steam.

It gives one a feeling of not needing anyone. That you have the strength to cope with things on your own.

That has helped.
Posted: 29/06/2006 at 10:28

Hey Tracey,

Great thread - as you can see from the replies you're not alone in being helped by your running. I hope it continues to help you stay strong... same goes for everyone else who has been going through bad stuff. xxxx
Posted: 30/06/2006 at 14:53

Hi Tracey,
It sounds awful what you've been through but I completely agree with you, running really does help. I too have suffered from depression and axiety problems and this is pretty much the main reason for me running. Sometimes I really don't feel in the mood for it, but I know that if I can just get my shorts on, I'm pretty guaranteed to go out running. When I get back afterwards, I feel a million times better and am always glad I went. Here's to a long happy running future! Cheers!
Posted: 15/08/2006 at 21:50

running helps me when i need to let off some pressure. My late wife and I lost our daughter a couple of weeks before the EDD in 2001 and now this year I lost my wife to cancer. I have 3 young children and when I can get out(given energy levels)I do and boy do I feel good after
Posted: 21/08/2006 at 20:57

Lee - I know life can be tough but wow you've been hit hard!!! Sorry to hear about your severe losses. I'm sure it must be impossible at times to find the emotional energy to run, never mind the physical energy. I have young children & a wife & appreciate the juggling of activities that's needed to arrange a run. Can I ask, what is EDD?
Posted: 22/08/2006 at 09:24

I too have suffered from depression most of my life and have found running helps. Not only does it lift my mood, to the point where I'm steadily decreasing my medication, but I've made some fantastic friends through it and have had amazing support from my running group when I've been low.

(((Lee))). Keep on running everyone.
Posted: 22/08/2006 at 09:43

Yep have to agree, running give you a huge boost in life...

Being a complete loonatic, and having my terrible down times mainly in the past now, I have always found running kinda picks you up and slaps you in the face saying 'oi git your not a failure your running, so what ever your mind is doing shut up and run....alright' how can you argue with that..I say...

See I am talking to myself also, sometimes when I am trying to create, my mind is spinning like an onion on a greasy table spoon....and to pull on your running shoes and plunder about the hills, sweating and farting makes your mind settle almost defragging your head...

Running is a great way to survive in this stressful world of ours...
Posted: 22/08/2006 at 10:22

running has really helped me through bouts of depression and PTSD. Although not a panacea, running does give me that extra boost when I most need it, it gets me out of the house more than I would usually get and it made me conscious of what I was doing to myself by smoking and gave me the boost enough to tackle my addiction and associated bi -polarity. I think I may have been dead if it was not running -seriously.
Posted: 22/08/2006 at 10:57

On the up - to answer your question, EDD is 'expected date of delivery'. ie, when the baby is due.
Posted: 22/08/2006 at 11:14

(((Lee))) - blimey you have been hit very hard and how you find the courage and strength to get out at all, I don't know. Running can provide a lift to a very heavy heart at times.

what strength and guts!!!!!

Posted: 22/08/2006 at 15:28

Slugsta - thanks for the explanation. Did I mention I have children, & still I didn't get it!

Hoose- PTSD I know without interpretation etc. I'm sure that was major too.

C C - have you thought of writing abook? with poetic phrases like those I'd think you'd be on a winner. Please tell me you don't run in/around the Peak District though!
Posted: 22/08/2006 at 15:54

sometimes in my work as a counsellor I am so tempted to recommend running -though I am not really suppose to do it directly. Sometimes we do hit on thing to feel better and -I put in the odd-"some people find activities like running helpful" -if asked about myself I'll say I run, too.

For people with confidence issues, taking very gradual steps, as in with builing ones training up often acts as a confidence builder. For example, 5 mins running may seem very hard and the "can't monster"(characteristic of people with confidence issues) steps in. However doing it gives you that extra edging forward in in our confidence. Of course this is repeated and confidence builds. Very similar to taking little steps in situations where fear has held you back.
Posted: 24/08/2006 at 08:03

I have suffered at various times from depression, phsycosis and eating disorders. Running has helped me with each one of these problems to varying degrees and without it I doubt I would be able to function as the "normal" human being I appear to be.

Posted: 24/08/2006 at 11:39

"normal" don't do yourself down HaL;O)

Posted: 24/08/2006 at 12:16

I once found that running caused me to get depressed.  I was newly single with kids to look after and not doing that great at the job, and I was tired but running harder each week and I found I felt really down after a long run.  After a while doing this I got really depressed and gave up running for several years. 

I think running is great and is really positive in general, but that it's possible to get too engrossed in it, lose balance and that this can cause problems. 

I'm more careful now to get enough rest and to eat enough to maintain my energy levels and doing great nowadays.

Posted: 07/11/2007 at 17:22

gosh, some of you guys have had really tough times, my problems/issues with life are minor by comparison.

When I'm practising karate I have to concentrate so hard I really do forget about stuff thats bothering me & after practise things don't seem so bad.   On the other hand, when I'm out for a run (on my own) I tend to think things through, have a bit of a mental tidy-up & get things into perspective.  Whatever exercise I do though I always feel mentally & physically better for it.

Posted: 07/11/2007 at 17:54

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