Running can be a powerful antidote to loneliness

Darren DeMatoff, 57, had an interesting realization a few years ago: Many of his close friends were up to 30 years younger. And then it dawned on him why: They’d met in a running group.

“Running is a great equalizer. It is a place where people find common ground, face similar challenges, overcome similar obstacles, and achieve personal milestones,” DeMatoff, the owner of a Chicago interior accent design and manufacturing company, tells Fortune. “When meeting runners and running together, age doesn’t even enter the equation.”

It’s a valuable lesson he’s learned through his involvement in the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA), a group he has been involved with since he decided to run his first marathon in 1995. Now he’s the vice president, and believes strongly that running, when done with others, can be a particularly salient—if surprising—antidote to the loneliness epidemic, currently affecting nearly 1 in 2 people in the U.S.

Because while running is by definition a solo activity, it can also be done with others—which in turn brings layer upon layer of physical and mental health benefits.

Why it’s needed

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called loneliness an “epidemic” in May of 2023.

“We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation … each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships,” reads his advisory on the healing effects of social connection and community. Those in running groups believe those are good places to start.

“I think everyone is looking for new friendships as they go through life, and it can get harder as you get older,” Rob Simmelkjaer, CEO of the nonprofit New York Road Runners (NYRR), tells Fortune.

In 1997, he trained for and ran his first marathon alone, and the experience was “just fine,” he says. “But it was nothing like when I did it again years later on a team, and met people in the park to train with every day,” he adds. That provided him both accountability and time to socialize, leading to a better time in his next marathon. But Simmelkjaer admits it’s not really about the running for him.

New York Road Runners CEO Rob Simmelkjaer high-fives participants of a free youth running group, Run for the Future.

New York Road Runners

“It’s about the kind of people that you’re going to surround yourself with,” he says. “You’ll talk about your careers, your life stories, your family. But running is a nice common ground to have with someone else … You get something very different out of it when you’re doing it with other people.”

But why running?

For starters, it’s been long-established that running has many physical benefits—doing so as little as five to 10 minutes a day, for example, even at slow speeds, can significantly lower your risk of dying from heart disease. It also has a positive impact on brain health. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, regular cardiovascular workouts, like running, can improve working memory and focus, plus boost mood. 

And a 2020 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health associated running with improvements in mental health, particularly in depression and anxiety disorders. The stress hormone, cortisol, is released through regular exercise, which means running can also be a healthy way to regulate your stress response, according to a recent article by Runner’s World. Running also helps trigger the release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, all chemicals that are often impacted by mental disorders.

Now add to all that the benefit of social connection, which, according to the CDC, can help decrease the risk of heart disease by 29%, stroke by 32%, and dementia by a whopping 50%.

Research from AARP Services, UnitedHealthcare and OptumLabs found in 2023 that moderate and high physical activity were associated with lowering severe loneliness and social isolation by up to 30%. Similarly, a 2023 study showed that physical activity—as long as it’s something that brings enjoyment and is not overly difficult—can decrease feelings of loneliness. 

If you’re already one of the 50 million Americans who run for exercise, switching things up by joining a group or running with friends could be a simple yet powerful loneliness antidote.

“When you can breathe and eliminate feeling alone, running is a saving grace,” Shawanda Weems, 48, a middle school English language arts teacher and track coach in the Bronx, tells Fortune. “It can free you. Running is a prescription-free way of dealing with loneliness available to all.”

Shawanda Weems, right, with her friend and former student, Kiara Fernandez Chavez.

Shawanda Weems

Simmelkjaer says he knows people who have met spouses, close friends, and mentors through NYRR, where it’s typical to see CEOs running with early-career individuals who have similar skill levels.

Weems would agree with that testament. She says she’s witnessed track bring her students together, and that she’s “cultivated longterm friendships with those same students as they mature into adulthood,” including with Kiara Fernandez Chavez, 28. The pair ran the New York City Marathon together through NYRR in 2016, and Weems says she wouldn’t have done if not for her friend’s motivation.

“To have her suggest that we embark on this adventure was not a goal of mine at the time,” says Weems. But completing it together, she adds, was “one of the highlights of my adult life.”

It’s just one testament to the power of running with others. “If you get in with the right group, you’ll realize that the runs are the mechanism for bringing people together,” says Simmelkjaer. “And that’s really what we all need in life.”

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