Can Running beat Exam Stress?

With end of year exams for many students at schools, colleges and universities, levels of stress and anxiety for many are inevitably going to be high. Stress is not always a bad thing in itself. It can help keep us on our toes and perform better. However excessive stress and anxiety can be overwhelming and can lead to depression or other poor mental health outcomes.

England Athletics have recently stepped in to help with their #RunAndRevise scheme. This encourages students to take a break from revision and support their mental health through running. It’s aimed at 16-25 year olds and the idea is to encourage students to leave their desks and run a mile or more, either alone or with others (for example through a RunTogether group). It is hoped this will help reduce stress levels and help students through a particularly difficult period as their exam preparations intensify.

So what is the science behind this? It’s now generally accepted that the mind and body are not ‘separate’, and that what you do with your body can have a significant impact on your mental wellbeing, and vice versa. Being physically active brings benefits both for your physical health and your mental wellbeing and there are a number of studies which show exercise can help reduce moderate depression, anxiety and stress.

In addition to this, exercise has a protective effect against stress, anxiety and depression. In other words, people who exercise regularly and already have good mental health are less likely to experience mental health problems in future. To illustrate this, a major study by Kings College London over a seven year period found that people who did (the government recommended) 150 minutes exercise per week, were 30% less likely to experience depression than those who didn’t exercise.

What is the reason for this? It’s generally accepted that exercise leads to chemical changes in the brain which promote a positive mood, but it is also likely that the psychological impacts of exercise such as improved self esteem, self control and the ability to rise to a challenge are also supportive of good mental health.

And before you reach for the running shoes, it’s not just running that can benefit our mental health. In fact the evidence is that any increase in physical activity can have mental health benefits, from dog walking and gardening to yoga and team sports. The important thing is to find an exercise you can enjoy regularly.