Running Therapy by Robert Fyfe, M.ED, LPC
If you know anyone who is a runner you may have heard them refer to running as their therapy and exercise (and running in particular) has been prescribed as a type of therapy, but how about running combined with therapy?
Exercise and running as therapeutic
Exercise has long been known to have therapeutic value. Exercise in general and running in particular has been shown to have both antidepressant and anxiolytic (antipanic or antianxiety) effects. Some of the factors associated with the reduction of depression through running include:
capacity for change, positive effect on mood, distraction (from problems), development of positive habit, symptom relief, consciousness alteration, increased self-efficacy and increased self-esteem and body image. In addition to these factors, running has been shown to produce biochemical changes similar to the effects caused by tricyclic antidepressant drugs.
What are these biochemical changes? Running produces positive physiological changes: improved cardiovascular health; release of muscle tension; increased stamina, vitality, and energy; and loss of weight.
Running also produces psychological changes associated with physical changes, for example increased confidence in body image and sense of accomplishment. For some people, concentration on the act of running reduces obsessive ruminations while for others focus on actual bodily sensations distracts from focus on psychosomatic aches and pains. Interestingly, runners frequently report increased cognitive processing during and after exercise and increases in creative problem-solving and making difficult decisions while running.
Running in psychotherapy
Exercise combined with psychotherapy is not a new concept, dating at least back to Anna Freud’s development of play therapy (1928), and running therapy in particular has
been around since at least the 1970’s, when it was popularized by Thaddeus Kostrubala. In addition to benefits of conducting therapy in conjunction with exercise
(as mentioned above) there is evidence to indicate that a change of setting (from the office to the outdoors) can be therapeutic as well. A familiar setting coupled with
exercise can help clients become less inhibited and more in touch with their feelings and experience and more in tune with what they genuinely feel. Sometimes, seeing the therapist in a real life situation, such as running may help the client to relate to the therapist in a more beneficial way.
Running is a relatively low-cost form of exercise and requires little or no special equipment apart from adequate shoes. Very little expertise or training is needed and running lends itself to an exercise where client and therapist can exercise and talk simultaneously.
What exactly is running therapy?
Running therapy is based in the same fundamental counseling theories as counseling in an office, for example, I use an integrated approach favoring Narrative Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy and a family systems model. That does not change in a running therapy context. Running, or exercise, becomes
the location for the therapy session. The pace is determined by the client – walking can be equally effective as running to creative the physiological and biochemical changes necessary for increased cognitions. The therapist remains attentive to what the client is saying and responds to changes in the
client’s body language, mood and the client and therapist work together to facilitate change just as they would in an office. An initial introductory visit in the office is required prior to an exercise session.
Does this sound interesting?
If this sounds interesting to you please contact me to discuss whether this type of therapy is for you. Contact me by email firstname.lastname@example.org or
Hays, K. F. (1994). Running therapy: Special characteristics and therapeutic issues of concern. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 31(4), 725-734. doi:10.1037/0033-3188.8.131.525
Levin, S. J. (1982). Running: An adjunctive group therapy technique. Group, 6(1), 27-34. doi:10.1007/BF01456571
Sachs, M. L. (1982). Exercise and running: Effects on anxiety, depression, and psychology. Journal Of Humanistic Counseling, Education & Development, 21(2), 51-57. doi:10.1002/j.2164-4683.1982.tb00214.x
Sime, W. E., & Sanstead, M. (1987). Running therapy in the treatment depression: Implications for prevention. In R. F. Muñoz, R. F. Muñoz (Eds.) , Depression prevention: Research directions (pp. 125-138). Washington, DC, US: Hemisphere Publishing Corp.