Happy female runner jogging in the morning in nature.

Mental Health and Movement: How Running Boosts Your Mood

More than 16 million Americans have depression and nearly 40 million have an anxiety disorder. Sasha Wolff is one person who is living with both. As the founder of Still I Run – Runners for Mental Health Awareness, she’s created a community dedicated to breaking stigmas and staying active.

Wolff was initially diagnosed with depression while attending college. “They gave me a prescription for Prozac weekly, and no follow-ups,” explained Wolff. “There was no furthering education on like, ‘Hey, maybe you should go to therapy. Hey, you should check in with your primary care physician.’”

For the next 10 years, Wolff took Prozac weekly before finding herself in another dark spot. “My depression outgrew the medication I was on,” she revealed. “I found myself having to check into Pine Rest in Grand Rapids, Michigan for an entire week for depression. That’s when they diagnosed me with anxiety as well.”

Once she was admitted, Wolff learned how to become an active participant in her own care. She discovered healthy habits such as therapy and regular exercise. “Before I went to Pine Rest, I didn’t do anything. Nothing, which is so awful to say. But I think that had to do with the stigma… It was in Pine Rest where they taught me a different type of coping mechanism. It was to find that healthy routine, and for me, that just ended up being running.”

On the latest episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, hosted by Chuck Gaidica, he and Wolff discuss how her personal journey became a mental health movement.

“I had a pair of running shoes at home that I used occasionally. I saw them one day when I got out of the hospital, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess we’ll just put these on, and go for a little walk. See how things feel,’” said Wolff. Not only did she feel better, she felt great. The next day Wolff began taking longer walks, which escalated to running. She loved the experience and wanted to keep the momentum.

So, what’s the secret? Running naturally increases the body’s serotonin–the chemical responsible for regulating mood. Historically, having low levels of serotonin has been linked to depression. It can also affect one’s sleep cycle and hunger. It’s just one of many factors that can cause a mental shift. “I think it’s the sense of accomplishment, the serotonin, and the fresh breath of air,” explained Wolff. “There are so many things that help.”

The positive connection between exercise and mental health is undeniable. Wolff launched the Still I Run community in 2016 with just her family and friends in mind. Since then, it’s expanded to include 20 ambassadors and regional group events. For example, each May, they have the Mental Health Run Streak which encourages people to run or walk at least one mile per day.

“We had over 40 different states participating this year and last year it was over 30.” Every year it starts to increase. My hope [is that] someday Still I Run can be a national movement, not just an organization.” But if running isn’t your thing, you’re not alone. There are plenty of activities you can do that provide similar benefits.

“Everyone has something that they really enjoy. I have a friend that loves to rock climb for mental health. For others it’s yoga or swimming. It doesn’t matter what your thing is as long as you’re getting out there and doing something that makes you happy.”

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Photo credit: Drazen Zigic

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