Rucking & Mental Health: How Rucking Improves Your Outlook

Rucking & Mental Health: How Rucking Improves Your Outlook

By Michael Easter

The pandemic wasn’t great for our mental health. The problem wasn’t just the stress of working in hectic conditions or worrying about getting sick. We spent more time cooped up inside and less time being physically active. We disconnected ourselves from others and became more connected to screens. By the end of 2020, more than 40 percent of Americans said they were struggling with their mental health, leading the CDC to call the situation a “crisis.”

The good news is that many of our problems are easy fixes. Just as many pandemic behaviors led us into mental malaise, we can develop new behaviors to get out of it. There are many paths, but rucking is a hell of a way to do so. It ticks many boxes that years of research indicate will boost our mental health.

It Gets You Outside

Japanese researchers first started studying the benefits of nature in the 1980s, after their country’s forest agency created a nature-based wellness program. The program promoted time in nature to improve wellness. The scientists were skeptical, but they’ve since found that time in nature is a potent antidote to the modern, overstressed condition. One of these studies found that people facing high levels of stress felt far less anxious, depressed, and irritable after just a couple of hours in the woods. Another found that just 15 minutes led to drops in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones.

The research has been building since. There are many reasons why nature seems to improve our mental health. It could be the sights, smells, and sounds of nature. Or the fact that you’re getting out of the office and are often moving around when you’re out in nature. Or a combination of all those things. Point is, it works if you work it.

And you don’t have to go far out. The research suggests that even a 20-minute ruck on a tree-lined street can decrease stress and improve your outlook.

It Works Your Heart

Gym culture over the last decade has leaned into all-out blitzkrieg efforts. Stuff like SoulCycle, CrossFit, etc. But more researchers are realizing that classic aerobic exercise is powerful for our minds. In 2019, a worldwide group of scientists looked at all the research on what happens when you take groups of people suffering from depression and have them do endurance exercise. The average session was 45 minutes, done three times a week at a moderate intensity. Think: A pace you can have a conversation at.

The research found that aerobic exercise was an “effective antidepressant.” The participants all felt happier and more confident after the trials. This is likely why the American Psychiatric Association notes that “many experts believe routine exercise is as powerful in treating anxiety and mood disorders as antidepressants.” Exercise’s mood-boosting effect may come from increases in dopamine and serotonin, or improve our ability to manage stress, or just help us establish behaviors that make us happier.

It Works Your Muscles

The ruck is heavy for the sake of it. That works your muscles to a degree that walking or running can’t. And it turns out that strong muscles build a strong mindset. That’s according to a review of the research. It found that “mental health benefits of resistance training for adults include reduction of symptoms in people with fatigue, anxiety, and depression; pain alleviation in people with osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back issues; improvements in cognitive abilities in older adults; and improvements in self-esteem.” Not bad. One now-famous study conducted in 1997 found that 80 percent of depressed elderly people who did weight training a few times a week saw their symptoms go away after 10 weeks.

There are a few possible reasons why. It could be that resistance training improves your TK. Or it might relieve pain, and pain is correlated with depression. Or it could just make you feel more confident, which boosts your mood. Or it could be altering your behaviors in such a way that you undercut whatever it was that was getting you down.

It's Social

The hurdle you’ll face running with a group is that most people have different fitness levels. Person A might want to run slower while Person B will want to run faster. So if these two want to run together, Person A will be left sucking wind the whole time, making it impossible to have a conversation, or Person B won’t get as good of a workout.

Enter rucking, which can give you cardio benefits equivalent to running in a more social and adaptable context. The weight is a great equalizer. Person A could use 20 pounds while Person B could use 35. But they’d be able to ruck at the same pace and get in the same workout, all while being able to hold a conversation throughout.

We know that time with people is critical for mental health. One study conducted by researchers at BYU discovered that loneliness can be even worse for your health than obesity.

It Gets You Away From Stressors

In many of those nature studies, the participants didn’t see any mental health benefits if they used their cellphones while outdoors. There are likely two reasons for this. First, when we’re on our cell phones, we’re not actually in nature—we’re ignoring it. Second, our screen is probably filled with garbage that stresses us out. Like unnecessary meeting requests from our co-workers and anything at all involving American politics.

The answer isn’t to leave your phone at home. It’s nice to have a phone in case of an emergency. Instead, silence your phone and toss it in your ruck so you’re not tempted to check it. You might even try rucking without listening to podcasts occasionally. That gives your focus a rest and allows your mind to wander.

It Tests Your Grit

The military doesn’t just use rucking for fitness. It’s also a test of grit. We at GORUCK love the term “embrace the suck.” It’s a reminder that “the suck” is a short-term discomfort that ultimately leads to long-term benefits.

But not all methods of testing your grit are created equal. Rucking allows you to put yourself under discomfort for an extended period with a low risk of injury. “It’s no coincidence that the militaries of the world have chosen rucking as the tool to create that physical and mental fusion of toughness,” said Dr. Stu McGill. “You can push someone and really give them a little bit of toughness exposure without high risk of injury.”

Decades of research and thousands of years of mythology tell us that humans improve by taking on challenges. By embracing and ultimately overcoming the suck.

Going out and rucking, of course, isn’t a substitute for professional mental health counseling for people who need serious help. But all the research suggests that testing ourselves physically under a ruck is a crazy good addition to improving our minds.

Michael Easter is an author, professor, and adventurer. His work has appeared in over 60 countries and can also be found in Men’s Journal, New York, Vice, Scientific American, Esquire, and others. He lives in Las Vegas on the edge of the desert with his wife and two dogs. If you want to read more, subscribe to his newsletter and read his book, The Comfort Crisis.