BBC News


Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Why does running help relieve depression?

The Magazine answers...

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Running for a "fit mind"
Snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan says running has helped him deal with depression and reclaim the sport's world number one spot. But why does it work?

If Ronnie O'Sullivan had to give up snooker or running, it's the green baize he would say goodbye to.

The troubled two-time world champion - regarded by some as the most talented player ever - says running has turned his life around. He credits it with helping him deal with bouts of depression, which he says have prevented him from realising his full potential.

He now runs every day, clocking up 50 miles a week. He says it has made his body and mind fitter and he has become more positive about himself and his ability. But why does running help?

Releases feel-good brain chemicals
A way to meet new people and feeling less isolated
Give people new goals and a sense of purpose
Can boost our self-esteem
Source: Mental Health Foundation

Research shows exercise can help people with depression because it releases feel-good brain chemicals such as endorphins. It can also improve self-esteem, through better body image or achieving goals, as well as relieving feelings of isolation which can fuel mental illness.

For years O'Sullivan has suffered from depression which resulted in mood swings. In snooker's 2006 UK Championship it caused him to walk out of a quarter-final against a stunned Stephen Hendry. He was fined 20,000 and docked 900 ranking points.

New goals

He says he has tried many things to combat his demons and was on Prozac when he won his first world title.

Prof Lewis Wolpert
It gives me time to quietly think and as a result I deal much better with stress
Prof Lewis Wolpert
"[Running is] the best therapy I've ever had," he says.

At 78, developmental biologist Professor Lewis Wolpert is more than twice the age of O'Sullivan. But he also credits running for helping beat his own, acute, depression. He remains an avid runner.

"The standard story is that vigorous exercise increases the levels of endorphins in the brain and this gives one a sense of well-being, it also raises the heart rate which is good for us," says Mr Wolpert.

"But as well as the physiological there is the psychological.

"I find it gives me time to quietly think and as a result I deal much better with stress. There's no-one I know who runs and doesn't feel better afterwards."

The Mental Health Foundation agrees that it helps the mind, as well as the body. It says it not only increases the release of endorphins in the body, it gives people new goals, a sense of purpose and boosts self-esteem.

Prescribed by GPs

It has been campaigning to increase the use of exercise for mild to moderate depression.

A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
One in five GPs now prescribes exercise to treat depression as an alternative to drugs, it says. This represents a four-fold rise in three years.

"Exercise can help people physically, socially and biologically," says Celia Richardson, campaigns director for the foundation.

"People often meet others who have been in the same situation as them, but are now further down the line and feeling better."

But experts are quick to point out that depression is a complex illness and it is important to offer a range of treatments. O'Sullivan himself says running is not a "cure".

"I am not saying exercise has beaten my depression, or that I have found a magical cure, but running helps me keep it at bay," he says.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I too suffer from bouts of depression, and have found that since I have been regularly running I have felt much better. Like Ronnie, I believe that running is not in itself a cure - that has to come from within. But it helps keep things in perspective when thoughts begin to go introspective. Best wishes Ronnie.
Paul Greenland, Essex UK

I took up running several years ago while suffering from depression - now I run at least once a week. The simple act of completing a route, without stopping, builds your self esteem and helps you see that you can achieve something. While it wouldn't have cured the depression, running certainly helped!
Sian Evans, Bangor Wales

I was on Citalopram for depression. Going running twice a week, a visit to the gym and a ride on the mountain bike really do give you a noticeable improvement in your mood. But remember, drinking and poor diet also contribute to depression.
And, Northampton

Running helped me get through some mental problems in my life. It does make you feel good, but it must be remembered that facing your problems is usually the only way to fix them. I would also suggest that an awful lot of people are so physically challenged by years of desk jobs and TV that they will not have either the motivation nor the support to get out and try some exercise. What would really help is some sort of social group / network to match people up of similar abilities.
David Scott, Warwick

I have also been suffering from depression, but I have started running about 3 times a week and referee football on a Saturday. I feel so much better and I have now stopped taking anti-depressents
Stephen Howard, Manchester

From personal experience, I concur that regular moderate to intense exercise is the best treatment one can undertake for well being of mind, body and soul. I have for many years suffered with weight problems and been unhappy with my appearance, a low self-esteem and lack of confidence. Coupled with moderate anxiety and mild depression for which I underwent counselling on numerous occasions. Since joining a gym in August 2007, I have already lost over 2 stone, reduced my body fat and am happier with my appearance, my general happiness is increased, my social anxiety is infinitely reduced and I feel more forthright, more confident and am generally a much happier human being.
Rob Hadfield, Wirral

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific