Why Running Worked Better Than Therapy for Me

Exercise is key to managing my mental health.

Photo by nine koepfer on Unsplash

Elle Woods taught me that exercise is connected to endorphins, is connected to happiness, is connected to not shooting husbands — some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Structural changes in my brain associated with exercise pave my road to happiness by giving me the strength and motivation to keep depression an arm’s length away.

Therapy was just talk.

It was sitting uncomfortably in a room and telling someone (almost) everything I’d already told my journal. I only looked forward to getting it over with. To be fair, I wasn’t the easiest patient. I wasn’t super open-minded or ready to take matters into my own hands to improve my mental health and quality of life. I wanted to be told what I could do to make myself feel better, like “drink lots of orange juice” or “cover it with Neosporin.”

After a month of not having any crazy mood-dips, my therapist told 17-year-old me that it looked like I’d be good to stop coming. Ouch. I was definitely still in need of some mental health help just as much as when I started going to therapy. However, it turned out that I needed to figure out what to do to make myself feel better.

I’m not saying no one should waste their time and money on therapy, because talking to a licensed professional who understands what you’re going through can work wonders. Just like taking antidepressants isn’t right for everyone, therapy isn’t right for everyone, even if you have an amazing therapist.

I needed a desire to get better, which a therapist couldn’t force into me.

The desire needed a reason with it: To get better for a loved one, to pursue a goal or dream, or to feel excitement about big and little things again.

However, I’m pretty stubborn, which comes with its pros and cons. One con is that I don’t like to let go of a negative emotion for the rest of the day, sometimes longer. So at the time that I stopped seeing a therapist, I subconsciously decided I wasn’t about to give up on depression.

Before I talk about my running experience, here’s my disclaimer: I’m a slowpoke. Ten-minute miles are my jam. I’d call myself a long-distance runner more than anything, but I don’t usually go beyond three miles.

Anyone can learn to like running if they figure out what they enjoy about it and what gets on their nerves about it. For me, I enjoy getting fresh air in my lungs and building a huge appetite first thing in the morning. I loathe humidity and getting super winded after not pacing myself.

Now here’s my runner’s gist:

  • I’ve been a runner since I was twelve. I’d run laps around my ⅓-mile block and count down the days until I’d be old enough to join the middle school cross country team.
  • I kept up with the intensity of the sport in seventh grade, but eighth through tenth I had more fun going at a jogging pace and talking to friends.
  • For two years after tenth grade, I ran and exercised sporadically and infrequently and dealt with an eating disorder that swung both ways.
  • Finally, on a June day in 2019, I started running again. Not because I was on a team, not because I wanted to change the way my body looked; just for me. It was also the day I decided to give up on the moderate level of depression I was fed up with and felt defined by.

Running has worked wonders for me. I’ve exercised consistently since I started running again. Ninety-five percent of the days when I have a good workout turn out to be good or at least okay days.

I don’t run when I’m stressed or having a bad day. When I try to, I absolutely loathe it and can hardly put one foot in front of the other because of my mental exhaustion.

I don’t think of running as something that changed my life or helps me through rough patches in life, but it did and does. Running is my constant. More generally, aerobic exercise is (I lean heavily on the elliptical during winter months).

However, every solution to one problem creates or points to another:

I have a huge fear that if I begin to decrease the amount I run or exercise now, I’ll eventually stop regularly exercising and never do it again — never breeze through the day on an endorphin high again. And, if I’m being honest, there’s also the irrational fear that I’ll gain weight.

I tell myself that everything will be okay as long as I keep exercising, so my physical and mental health can balance on that one thing at least. Amazingly, it works. Last summer, the summer of COVID-19 isolation, I went on runs and walks a lot, which helped me keep my sanity and fill my time.

Like any therapeutic tool, you have to want your life to change and will the tool to help with the change. In the years that depression controlled my life, this was the most difficult pill to swallow. But it has been the best medicine.

For information about why running is so beneficial to mental health, check out this article by Scott Douglas, called “For Depression and Anxiety, Running Is a Unique Therapy,” or this Johns Hopkins Medicine article, called “The Truth Behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running.”

Full-time college student who loves fiction-writing, hiking and running, and eating peanut butter on everything.