We all know running is good for the body – but the mental benefits may be even greater than we think.
In fact, a British neuroscientist says if GPs could prescribe exercise, we might be able to halt the mental health crisis.
Ben Martynoga, of the National Institute for Medical Research in London (UK), says: "If we could put exercise into a pill, that would solve a lot of problems."
One in four people us will experience mental health problems in our lives and the British Health Service prescribed a record number of antidepressants – 64.7m – in 2016.
There has also been an increase in “talking” therapies over recent years, with a predicted 60,000 more people requiring treatment for common mental health conditions by the end of this year.
"If we could prescribe exercise, and encourage people to get fit, we could avoid a mental health crisis as well as stop the obesity crisis" Ben says.
"Exercise provides a chemical reward system that makes you feel better."
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Exercise releases endorphins, which Ben calls "homemade opiates" for having natural mood boosting qualities.
Running also releases endocannabinoids, which have similar properties to the drug cannabis by binding to the same receptors in the brain, thereby helping to relax us and defuse stress.
“If exercise were a drug and we bottled it, people would fall over themselves to get it,” Ben says.
"If we were to put talking therapies up against exercise, we would find that exercise is just as good if not better."
But Ben, who has worked in labs across the world studying the brain for the last two decades, acknowledges that prescribing exercise to patients with mental health problems is not a simple solution.
"It's a very subtle and difficult thing, because exercising and running in particular are intimidating and taking that first step is extremely challenging. [...] But I think it's important to get the message out that you don't need to do very much to feel the benefits."
Ben has been working with sports brand Saucony to research how running changes the function of the brain.
New research from the brand has revealed that running can put us into a meditative state, as we focus on breathing, foot strike and the world around us.
Ben describes this meditative state as a feeling of "flow when you are effortlessly moving through the world".
Studies from universities in Nottingham, Lithuania and Arizona have shown that after a run people were much better able to control their attention spans and avoid distractions.
"I like to think of running as moving mindfulness meditation," Ben says.
"It helps clear your mind and focus, makes you feel better and more positive, helps you deal with stress and can even make you more creative. [...] This meditative state is very beneficial for you brain and state of mind."
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