Five Ways Running Benefits Your Brain

Five Surprising Ways Exercise Changes Your Brain

Five Ways Running Benefits Your Brain

We’ve all heard that exercise is good for us—how it strengthens our hearts and lungs, and helps us prevent diseases diabetes. That’s why so many of us to make New Year’s resolutions to move more, knowing it will make us healthier and live longer.

But many people don’t know about the other important benefits of exercise—how it can help us find happiness, hope, connection, and courage.

Around the world, people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives. They have a stronger sense of purpose and experience more gratitude, love, and hope. They feel more connected to their communities, and are less ly to suffer from loneliness or become depressed.

These benefits are seen throughout the lifespan, including among those living with serious mental and physical health challenges. That’s true whether their preferred activity is walking, running, swimming, dancing, biking, playing sports, lifting weights, or practicing yoga.

Why is movement linked to such a wide range of psychological benefits? One reason is its powerful and profound effects on the brain. Here are five surprising ways that being active is good for your brain—and how you can harness these benefits yourself.

1. The exercise “high” primes you to connect with others

Although typically described as a runner’s high, an exercise-induced mood boost is not exclusive to running. A similar bliss can be found in any sustained physical activity.

Scientists have long speculated that endorphins are behind the high, but research shows the high is linked to another class of brain chemicals: endocannabinoids (the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis)—what neuroscientists describe as “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals.

Areas of the brain that regulate the stress response, including the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are rich in receptors for endocannabinoids. When endocannabinoid molecules lock into these receptors, they reduce anxiety and induce a state of contentment. Endocannabinoids also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which further fuels feelings of optimism.

This exercise high also primes us to connect with others, by increasing the pleasure we derive from being around other people, which can strengthen relationships. Many people use exercise as an opportunity to connect with friends or loved ones. Among married couples, when spouses exercise together, both partners report more closeness later that day, including feeling loved and supported.

Another study found that on days when people exercise, they report more positive interactions with friends and family. As one runner said to me, “My family will sometimes send me out running, as they know that I will come back a much better person.”

2. Exercise can make your brain more sensitive to joy

When you exercise, you provide a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers—the system of the brain that helps you anticipate pleasure, feel motivated, and maintain hope.

Over time, regular exercise remodels the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors.

In this way, exercise can both relieve depression and expand your capacity for joy.

These changes can also repair the neurological havoc wreaked by substance abuse. Substance abuse lowers the level of dopamine in your brain and reduces the availability of dopamine receptors in the reward system. As result, people struggling with addiction can feel unmotivated, depressed, antisocial, and unable to enjoy ordinary pleasures. Exercise can reverse this.

In one randomized trial, adults in treatment for methamphetamine abuse participated in an hour of walking, jogging, and strength training three times a week. After eight weeks, their brains showed an increase in dopamine receptor availability in the reward system.

Jump-starting the brain’s reward system benefits not just those who struggle with depression or addiction. Our brains change as we age, and adults lose up to 13 percent of the dopamine receptors in the reward system with each passing decade.

This loss leads to less enjoyment of everyday pleasures, but physical activity can prevent the decline.

Compared to their inactive peers, active older adults have reward systems that more closely resemble those of individuals who are decades younger.

3. Exercise makes you brave

Courage is another side effect of physical activity on the brain. At the very same time that a new exercise habit is enhancing the reward system, it also increases neural connections among areas of the brain that calm anxiety. Regular physical activity can also modify the default state of the nervous system so that it becomes more balanced and less prone to fight, flight, or fright.

The latest research even suggests that lactate—the metabolic by-product of exercise that is commonly, but erroneously, blamed for muscle soreness—has positive effects on mental health. After lactate is released by muscles, it travels through the bloodstream to the brain, where it alters your neurochemistry in a way that can reduce anxiety and protect against depression.

Sometimes, the movement itself allows us to experience ourselves as brave, as the language we use to describe courage relies on metaphors of the body. We overcome obstacles, break through barriers, and walk through fire. We carry burdens, reach out for help, and lift one another up. This is how we as humans talk about bravery and resilience.

When we are faced with adversity or doubting our own strength, it can help to feel these actions in our bodies. The mind instinctively makes sense physical actions. Sometimes we need to climb an actual hill, pull ourselves up, or work together to shoulder a heavy load to know that these traits are a part of us.

4. Moving with others builds trust and belonging

In 1912, French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term collective effervescence to describe the euphoric self-transcendence individuals feel when they move together in ritual, prayer, or work. Moving with others—for example, in group exercise, yoga, or dance classes—is one of the most powerful ways to experience joy.

Psychologists believe the key to producing collective joy is synchrony—moving in the same way, and at the same time, as others—because it triggers a release of endorphins. This is why dancers and rowers who move in synch show an increase in pain tolerance.

But endorphins don’t just make us feel good; they help us bond, too. People sharing an endorphin rush through a collective activity , trust, and feel closer to one another afterward. It’s a powerful neurobiological mechanism for forming friendships, even with people we don’t know.

Group exercise has managed to capitalize on the social benefits of synchronized movement. For example, the more you get your heart rate up, the closer you feel to the people you move in unison with, and adding music enhances the effect. Breathing in unison can also amplify the feeling of collective joy, as may happen in a yoga class.


What does running do to your brain?

Five Ways Running Benefits Your Brain

It may seem obvious – as you push on through a long run, veering wildly between sensations of agony and elation – that running can have a huge effect on your state of mind.

It is an intuitive idea that a growing number of neuroscientists have begun to take seriously, and in recent years they have started to show us what actually plays out on the hills and valleys of your grey matter as you run.

Their findings confirm what many runners know from their own experience: we can use running as a tool to improve the way we think and feel. And we are now learning precisely why running can return focus, vanquish stress and improve mood. Plus we know why – if you’re lucky – you might get a brief glimpse of nirvana.

It would be crazy to believe that running is a universal solution to all of our psychological challenges. Indeed, from your brain’s perspective, you may not want to push it too hard.

German neuroscientists scanned the brains of some of the competitors before, during, and after the TransEurope Foot Race, in which competitors slog through 3,000 miles, over 64 consecutive days.

In the middle of this absurdly extreme ultramarathon, the runners’ grey matter had shrunk in volume by 6%: the ‘normal’ shrinkage associated with old age is just 0.2% each year. Luckily, the story doesn’t end too badly: eight months later the runners’ brains were back to normal.

But if covering immense distances can be counter-productive, it is clear now that more moderate runs can result in very real benefits. First, in a world where smartphones bombard us with stimulation and blur the boundaries between work and life, a clutch of recent studies shows why going for a run can help regain a sense of control.

A 2018 experiment from West Michigan University, for example, showed that running quickly for half an hour improves “cortical flicker frequency” threshold. This is associated with the ability to better process information.

Two others, from the Lithuanian Sports University and Nottingham Trent University, showed that interval running improves aspects of “executive function”. This is a suite of mental high-level faculties that include the ability to marshall attention, tune out distractions, switch between tasks and solve problems.

Among the young people studied, measurable gains were clear immediately after 10 minutes of interval sprints. They also accumulated after seven weeks of training.

Research from Sweden shows how running can defuse at least one important biological stress pathway

A brain imaging study led by David Raichlen at the University of Arizona ties in neatly with these results. They saw clear differences in brain activity in serious runners, compared to well-matched non-runners.

For obvious reasons, you cannot run while you are inside a brain scanner, so the neuroscientists studied the brain at rest. First, they saw increased co-ordinated activity in regions, mainly at the front of the brain, known to be involved in executive functions and working memory. This makes sense.

Second, they saw relative damping down of activity in the “default mode network”, a series of linked brain regions that spring into action whenever we are idle or distracted.

Your default mode network is the source of your inner monologue, the instigator of mind-wandering and the voice that ruminates on your past. Its effects are not always welcome or helpful, and have been associated with clinical depression.

Raichlen’s was a preliminary study, but if corroborated in the future, it will lend fresh weight to the idea that running can be a form of moving mindfulness meditation.

Brain scans show that meditation and running can have a somewhat similar effect on the brain; simultaneously engaging executive functions and turning down the chatter of the default mode network.

Again, this seems intuitively right: in the midst of a run, you are ly to be immersed in the present moment, tuned into your bodily state, and conscious of your breath. These are all key aims of mindfulness-based practices.

Lacing up your trainers and going for a run could, therefore, be a way to reap some of the psychological benefits of mindfulness. Companies, too, are cottoning on to the therapeutic effects of running: I recently worked with running-shoe company Saucony to create a podcast about the effects of running on the mind.

All of this might start to explain why some people find that running, mindfulness, can be a useful way to overcome stress and depression. Recent research from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows, at a chemical level, how running can defuse at least one important biological stress pathway.

When you are under stress, metabolic processes in your liver convert the amino acid tryptophan into a molecule with the mumble-inducing name of knyurenine.

Some of that knyurenine finds its way into your brain, where its accumulation has been strongly associated with stress-induced depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. When you exercise, the levels of an enzyme called kynurenine aminotransferase build up in your muscles.

This enzyme breaks down knyurenine into the related molecule kynurenic acid, which, importantly, cannot enter the brain. In this way, exercising your skeletal muscles by running clears from your bloodstream a substance that can cause mental health problems.

It is important to note that, for technical and ethical reasons, some of the details of this mechanism have been proven only in laboratory animals.

Saucony has even named its latest shoe collection – available – “White Noise” after the mind-clearing effects of a run Photograph: Saucony

At first glance, it is not obvious why working your leg muscles should have a direct effect on your mental state. This work provides rare insight into the often-mysterious links between brain and body – and is a powerful reminder that your brain is just another bodily organ. What you choose to do with your body will, inevitably, have psychological consequences.

Running can do more for your mood than smooth out stress. Some lucky souls gloat about their experiences of the “runner’s high”, which, they claim, is a powerful feeling of ecstasy and invincibility. Running has never quite done that for me, but we do now know more about the potent chemical rewards that running triggers in the brain.

The popular idea of the “endorphin rush” was born in the 1980s and 90s, when a series of studies showed that the levels of beta-endorphin increase in your bloodstream during the course of a run.

Beta-endorphin targets the same receptors as opiates, and has some similar biological effects. The endorphin rush hypothesis always had a flaw, however, since beta-endorphin does not cross readily the blood-brain barrier.

And if it didn’t make it into your brain, how could it give you a high?

In 2008, German neuroscientists put that right. They used functional brain imaging to show that, in trained runners, beta-endorphin levels do indeed spike in the brain after a two-hour run. Increased levels endorphin activity in the brain also correlated with the runners’ self-reported feelings of euphoria.

It is not just home-brew opiates that can dull the pain and raise your spirits while you are on the run. Endocannabinoids are a diverse family of bodily chemicals which, cannabis, bind the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. The levels of endocannabinoids circulating in the blood rises after 30 minutes of moderately intense treadmill running.

Rigorous experiments, conducted on lab mice, show that running-induced endocannabinoids are responsible for reductions in anxiety and perception of pain. It is a good bet that the same mechanism works in our minds. For many of us, running may never deliver a drug- high.

But we now see why a run that feels murder at the start can leave you feel satisfied and at ease by the home straight.

Some of these studies are preliminary and need fleshing out. And it is definitely the case that your gender, genetic profile, fitness, expectations and many other factors besides will influence the way your brain responds to running. Even so, I read all these neuroscientific studies as good news stories.

While the physical benefits of running and aerobic exercise are well established, we are starting to see why running can have profound benefits for mental health, too. Hopefully, knowing this will redouble your determination to get out there and run more often.

Ben tweets at @mountainogre

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7 Ways Running Improves Your Brain Power

Five Ways Running Benefits Your Brain

Running is one of the best calorie-burning, ass-kicking cardio aerobic exercises out there. It can help you manage your weight, increase endurance, improve cardiovascular function, etc.

Not only that, research has shown that running can help prevent heart diseases, obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, stroke and a host of other health ailments.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that runners are a healthy bunch.

But that’s not the whole story.

Exercise, especially running, has shown to change the very structure and function of the brain, leading to long-term increases in both cerebral power and longevity.

Research has linked this sport to many physiological, emotional and psychological benefits, such as stress relief, reduced depression, improved mental clarity, etc.

That’s why today, dear reader, I will teach you more about some of the brain benefits that running offers.

So, without further ado, here are some of the few ways that running—and exercise in general—can help you build YOUR best brain ever.

1. Stress Relief

Stress has severe negative effects on your mental processes, emotional state, behavior, and body. Common undesirable effects include (and not limited to) intense headaches, chest pain, muscle tension, accident, anger issues, weight gain, change in sex drive, sleep problems, Etc.

But here is the good news:

According to research, cardio exercise can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

This is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, titled “Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanism in the Dentate Gyrus.”  Long title; simple conclusion.

So, why is exercise so helpful?

Running, and other forms of cardio exercises, give the feel-good hormones, Endorphins, a jolt.

But first things first, what are endorphins?

In essence, these are the good feel, natural, hormones, that promote a sense of well-being, lowering stress and improving your mood levels.

Endorphins are secreted by the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland, and the more endorphins your brain releases and pumps out, the greater the effect. These are also structurally similar to their medically engineered counterpart, morphine.

Science backs this up, according to German researchers from the fields of Nuclear Medicine, Neurology, and Anesthesia at the Technische Universität München (TUM) and the University of Bonn. The study was reported in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

More specifically, 10 subjects’ brains were scanned both before and after a two-hour long distance run using a positron emission tomography (PET), which is an advanced imaging technique.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that the athlete’s prefrontal and limbic regions (which is a set of brain structures located on both sides of the thalamus, and it appears to be responsible for our emotional life) secreted high amounts of endorphins. And the more endorphins produced in the athlete’s brain, the more happy and elated they reported feeling.

These are typically associated with long distance runner, but endurance athletes do not enjoy exclusive access to the endorphin supply. The fact is, if you have human neurology, you can tap into this awesome resource of feel-goodness.

Furthermore, exercise can also work as an antidepressant by helping your brain hold on to mood-enhancing neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, according to research.

To make the most it, run in quite, off the road and green spaces instead of the noisy, polluted, and crowded streets, what’s known as trail running. Running, especially in nature, promotes the release of these potent brain chemicals.

2. Running Makes you Smart

Pounding the pavement promotes the creation of new nerve cells and blood vessels within the brain, an organ that tends to shrink in both size and power as we age, research shows.

Here are a few studies for more details

Study I

Running, and other forms of cardio exercise, triggers the growth of new nerve cells—neurogenesis—and blood vessels, angiogenesis, which combines to increase brain tissue volume, according to research conducted at the University of Maryland.

This is critical as previous research has shown that brain tissue volume contracts as we age.  In fact, we begin to lose brain tissue as early as our late 20’s.

Study II

A report coming the University of Georgia shows that running might lead to nerve function regeneration—an essential ingredient in optimal and healthy cerebral functioning.

This research was reported in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and showed that those who exercised regularly increased the volume of their hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with learning and memory—by up to two percent, compared to sedentary peers.

This might not sound a big deal until you realize, once again, that this region of the brain isn’t known for increasing in both size and power at any point in adulthood.

Study III

Sustained aerobic exercise appears to increase these reserves in adult animals far more than high-intensity training and resistance training.

These findings were reached by scientists at the Department of Psychology and Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland after assessing the effects of sustained cardio, high-intensity training, and resistance training on adult brain cell neurogenesis in male rats.

3. Quick Recall

Running regularly improves memory and learning.

In fact, a study of subjects suffering from early stages of Alzheimer disease revealed that those who followed an aerobic training program had better memory capabilities than sedentary peers.

In another study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, subjects scored 20 percent better on memory tests following a running session than they did before working out.

Therefore, if you’re struggling with learning a new language, or just want to improve your recall skills, running might be the answer.

Don’t get me wrong. Running—or any other form of exercise — can’t “cure” Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, but it’s one way to potentially help you ward off age-related brain issues.

4. Stay Happy, Get Happier

I love running because it’s one of the best things I do to reduce stress and elevate my mood. This is not a secret as a lot of people take up running for similar reasons.

And this is not just some baseless subjective conclusion. Here are a couple of studies to check out.

5. Sleep Better while Running

Sleep disorders affect millions of adults. Surveys report that about 50 percent of people aged 50 and older complain of symptoms of chronic insomnia and other serious sleep issues. And that’s bad.

The good news is, you could improve sleep quality with regular aerobic exercise.

Who knew that!!

According to research conducted at the Northwestern Medicine, Regular running can reduce, even completely cure, insomnia.

Participants in the research reported that their sleep quality improved tremendously while following a consistent exercise program.

The subjects also reported fewer gloomy and depressive symptoms as well as feeling better alerted and more productive.

Outdoor running may promote better sleep since it increases exposure to sunlight or bright light. This increased exposure to natural light helps to properly adjust your body temperature rhythmic pattern, which makes it easier to fall asleep and improves sleep quality.

As a result, if you are suffering from insomnia, look no further than running to cure your “Nuit Blanche.”

6. Prevent Head Pounders

If you suffer from migraines, then you should consider taking up running instead of a pill.

According to a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, regular cardio exercise can decrease the frequency and severity of head pounders by reducing tension.

Subjects who opted for a 10-week running program reported a decline of roughly 40 percent in the amount and intensity of migraines – as much as they’d get from medication.

The reason behind this steep drop is simple: exercise, as we have already seen, decreases the levels of stress hormones (the culprits behind headaches and other health troubles).

Not only that, outdoor running offers a mental escape nothing else.

This might not solve all of your troubles, but it can grant you perspective and even inspire you into a better course of action to handle the stressful situation.

And sometimes all we need is a bit of perspective.

7. Get Productive

If you’re looking to get more productive on your job, then running can provide with an edge. Research shows that employees who follow an exercise program regularly are more productive and enjoy higher energy levels than their sedentary colleagues.

More specifically, a study from International Journal of Workplace Health Management revealed that subjects who hit the gym during their workday were 23 percent more productive than they had no workout.

To get the best your running session, do it first thing in the morning or at midday. Starting the day with a workout will get your mental engines firing high for the rest of the day.

And opting for a midday run can help you relieve stress and revitalize your body—especially if you’ve spent the whole morning sitting at your work desk.

How to Run The Smart Way

So, running is not only good for your body, but also beneficial for your brain—the hardware of your mind.

As a result, taking up running is not only a smart choice, but it can make you even smarter.

But be careful here. Although running is good for your brain health, doing too much of it can spell disaster on your mental functioning and health status.

Research has demonstrated that overtraining can lead to mental decline, chronic fatigue, insomnia and other health troubles, thus compromising the quality of your life.

Therefore, make proper training and recovery a part parcel of your training program.

For starters, follow a healthy diet that’s high in complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats—with an emphasis on pre- and post-workout eating.

Make sure also to get at least seven to eight hours of high quality, uninterrupted, sleep during the night’s time, take naps if you’ve to. Ample rest between hard workouts—at least for a couple of days—is vital.

For more on this, check some of these posts.

The Overweight Beginner’s Guide To Running

The 8-Week Beginner Running Program

How to Make Running a Habit In 11 Simple Steps

The 30-Day Running For Fun Challenge.

New to Running? Start Here…

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10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain

Five Ways Running Benefits Your Brain

By Christian Jarrett

“One 60-minute run can add 7 hours to your life” claimed The Times last week.

The story was a new review in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases that concluded that runners live, on average, three years longer than non-runners and that running will do more for your longevity than any other form of exercise. But there’s more to running than its health-enhancing effects.

Research published in recent years has shown that donning your trainers and pounding the hills or pavements changes your brain and mind in some intriguing ways, from increasing connectivity between key functional hubs, to helping you regulate your emotions.

The precise effects sometimes vary according to whether you engage in intense sprints or long-distance running. Here, to coincide with a new feature article in The Psychologist – “Minds run free” – we provide a handy digest of the ways that running changes your mind and brain.

Running changes your brain wiring
David Raichlen and his colleagues scanned the brains of young, competitive distance runners and controls while they rested in a scanner with their eyes open for six minutes.

As reported in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the runners showed greater connectivity between the so-called frontal parietal network and other neural regions involved in working memory and self-control, which the researchers interpreted as ly due to the cognitive demands of running and the runners’ increased aerobic fitness. The runners also showed greater “anti-correlation” between their default mode network (the DMN, which sparks into life when we’re resting) and a series of regions involved in motor control and sensation – the researchers said this could indicate that when on the move, the runners are ly to be very cognitively engaged, with their DMN suppressed.

Intense sprints seem to boost your executive function
For a study published last year in Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers asked young volunteers (average age 12) to complete several 10-second sprints for ten minutes and then take some cognitive tests.

The participants acted as their own controls and on another day (either before or after the sprint day) they completed the same mental tests after 10 minutes of rest.

The participants’ performance on the Stroop Test – a long-established measure of mental control or what psychologists call “executive function” – seemed to be enhanced immediately after the sprints and 45 minutes afterwards, as compared with after resting.

There were no effects of the sprints on visual-spatial memory performance or basic mental speed (as judged by the Digit Symbol Substitution test). their finding of an apparent benefit of sprints on executive function, Simon Cooper and his colleagues said there was a case for including more opportunities for intense exercise in the school day.

Seven weeks of interval running training can boost your cognitive flexibility
For three times per week for seven weeks, a small group of young dinghy sailors spent 45 minutes per session, rising to 90 minutes at the end of the programme, engaged in interval training: running fast for between 200 to 1000m, interspersed with periods of rest. The researchers tested their volunteers’ cognitive function before the training period and afterwards, and compared the outcomes with a control group of young dinghy sailors who just continued their active lifestyle as usual. Writing in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Tomas Venckunas and his colleagues reported that the running group didn’t just get fitter and better at running, but also showed superior gains in their cognitive flexibility: that is, they were better at adapting to rapid switches in task instructions in a keypress task on a computer.

Ridiculously extreme long-distance running shrinks your brain (but it grows back)
In 2009, 67 endurance athletes ran nearly 3,000 miles over 64 days, without a single day’s rest, to complete the TransEurope-FootRace ultramarathon.

For a paper in BMC Medicine, a team of researchers led by Wolfgang Freund scanned the brains of a sample of these runners before the race, during and eight months afterwards.

During the race, the runners’ brains shrunk, in terms of grey matter volume, by about six per cent, an amount that the researchers described as “substantial” considering that normal aging is associated with volume loss of around 0.2 per cent per year. However, at the final scan, the runners’ brains had recovered to their pre-race volume.

In a follow-up study in BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, the same research team pinpointed the running-related grey matter loss to four key areas, including parts of: temporoparietal cortex, occipitotemporal cortex, anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex, and caudate nucleus.

Although highly speculative, they noted the overlap of these areas with the Default Mode Network and suggested the observed cell loss in these regions may reflect the combination of the metabolic demands of running combined with a prolonged lack of use of the DMN, the brain’s resting-state network.

The “runners’ high” may be linked to changes in brain chemicals
Completing a run can leave you feeling euphoric and several studies suggest this could be down to changes to the brain’s chemical messengers.

For instance, a 2008 study in Cerebral Cortex used PET neuroimaging to show that a two-hour run led to enhanced opioid binding across several areas of the brain, as compared with before the run, and that this was associated with subjective feelings of euphoria.

This supports the idea that running triggers the increased released of endorphins in the brain – a kind of natural high.

A more recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology pointed to the importance of other neurotransmitters: the researchers found that an intense treadmill run, but not a walk, was associated with increased circulation of endocannabinoids – endogenous brain chemicals that bind to the same receptors in the brain as cannabis.

Running may quieten your mind
Anecdotally, many runners also say that going for a jog has a calming effect, helping their brains dial back on usual levels of worry and rumination.

A study published last year in Experimental Brain Research appeared to provide some partial scientific support for this idea.

Petra Wollseiffen and her colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the surface electrical activity of the brains of 11 ultramarathoners several times during a six hour run.

Running was associated with reductions in activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, and for the first hour, runners also reported feeling more relaxed and an increased sense of “flow”. However, the levels of decreased brain activity and subjective feelings of flow didn’t correlate so it would be an oversimplification to say that this research shows that running helps you to relax by switching off your brain.

Running increases the growth of new neurons (at least in mice)
It was the received wisdom through most of the last century that adults can’t grow new neurons – a process called neurogenesis.

It’s now known that this isn’t true: in fact, new neurons continue to grow through life in specific areas of the brain. Interest has turned to the function of these news neurons and ways to encourage their growth.

To date, much of the research is on rats and mice, in whom a recurring finding is that running seems to encourage neurogenesis. Take a seminal paper published in Nature in 1999.

Fred Gage and his team reported that mice who had the opportunity to choose to run in a spinning wheel exhibited twice the amount of neurogenesis in a part of the hippocampus (a brain region involved in memory and learning), as compared with mice who had no choice but to swim or others who had to complete a water maze. More recent animal research suggests that it is particularly long-distance running, as opposed to interval-style training (short bursts of running) that may increase neurogenesis, perhaps through release of what’s known as “brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)”, a chemical that encourages cell growth.

A short jog may help you regulate your emotions
For a 2015 study in Cognition and Emotion, Emily Bernstein and Richard McNally asked volunteers to jog or stretch for 30 minutes and then they showed them a sad clip from the film The Champ.

Participants who said they usually struggled to handle negative emotion were more intensely affected by the sad clip, just as you’d expect, but crucially this was less so if they had completed the jog (but not the stretching).

The researchers said: “… a b moderate aerobic exercise appears to have helped those participants potentially more vulnerable to problematic affective dysregulation to be less susceptible to the impact or lingering effects of the stressor”.

Intense sprints may boost your ability to learn
Bernward Winter and his colleagues tested participants’ ability to learn new made-up words for objects after either two intense sprints of three-minutes length, after 40 minutes of gentle running, or after resting.

Participants were able to learn 20 per cent faster after the sprints compared with the other conditions, and they showed superior memory retention when tested again a week later.

Writing in the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, the researchers said the blood measures they took suggested that the participants’ enhanced learning performance after sprints may have been associated with increased levels of dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and BDNF.

“This [finding] is pertinent to the organization of learning-supportive environments, e.g., in schools (intense exercise during the breaks),” the researchers said.

Running a marathon seems to wipe your memory of the pain
Let’s not romanticise long-distance running.

As Daniel Engber observed at Slate last year,  “a vast, disturbing literature has now accumulated on the ill effects of running marathons”, particularly all the pain, including chaffing, blisters and cramps.

One way that repeat marathon runners seem to cope is that the satisfaction of completing a run gradually wipes their memories for the pain they went through.

Researchers demonstrated this for a study published in Memory: they asked marathon runners to report their pain and emotions directly after completing a marathon and then caught up with them again six months later, to ask them to recall their earlier post-marathon pain. The runners tended to have forgotten just how much pain they’d been in, and this was especially true if they’d been on an emotional high at the end of the marathon.

–Want to read more about the psychology of running? Check out this month’s cover feature at The Psychologist about psychologists who run and whether their experiences match the data: Minds run free.

–Image via

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest


8 ways running stimulates your brain

Five Ways Running Benefits Your Brain

From the initial hit of the endorphin high to stimulating your creativity and concentration, all the way to warding off dementia, this is why running matters to your grey matter.

1. Smarten up

Big meeting in the diary? Get your running shoes. Going for a run was found to improve reasoning ability by US researchers from the University of Illinois, while a study at National Taiwan Sport University has pinpointed 30 minutes of moderate exercise as the ideal duration and intensity to optimise cognitive performance immediately afterwards.

But you may not have to wait until you’re done to reap the rewards, as recent University of Aberdeen research found that the act of running triggers creative thinking.

According to the researchers, the mechanism at work here is that your brain associates forward motion with the future. The study also found that to maximise the effect you should stick to a route you know well, so worrying about directions doesn’t limit your mind’s capacity to wander.

Also, keep the effort easy, as maintaining speed and tracking splits will divert brain power away from creativity.

2. Get high

If your sweat-elevated smarts aren’t enough to put a smile on your face, then perhaps the fabled runner’s high will do the trick. German research has traced the effect to regions of the brain releasing natural opiates as we run.

(These regions also become active in response to emotions such as love.

) Other studies have shown the sweet spot for endorphin production is a comfortably hard effort (think tempo run), while research at Oxford University found exercising in groups could increase endorphin release.

Related: The average runner experiences the runner's high in less than 9 minutes, new study finds

And there’s more bliss-inducing chemistry bubbling away; running also triggers your brain to release substances called endocannabinoids, which promote feelings of calm. Challenging but not all-out efforts (70-85 per cent of maximum heart rate) are the key to this drawer in your brain’s natural pharmacy.

3. Stay happy

Un other chemical shortcuts to happiness, pounding the pavement doesn’t come with a comedown. In fact, research shows that regular running reduces stress and elevates mood over the long term.

A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise identified increased levels of tryptophan in runners – elevated tryptophan is typically paralleled by increased levels of the mood-elevating neurotransmitter serotonin.

Another study, published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, found physical activity helped to lower patients’ score on the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS).

Other research has found that running can be as effective as prescription antidepressants, (or even more so), acting in the same way as the medication by causing mood-improving neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine to stay in the system for longer.

Ben Martynoga, a neuroscientist who recently worked with Saucony and their White Noise collection, talked about another brain imagining study, led by David Raichlen at University of Arizona, in which brain scans showed that meditation and running had similar effects on the brain.

Martynoga said: “If you're a runner it must seem quite obvious that running has an effect on the brain, yet as a neuroscientist we look for evidence this.

In the midst of a run, you are ly to be immersed in the present moment, tuned into your bodily state and concious of your breath – all key aims of midfulness-based practises.”

4. Beat cravings

Mental visions of post-run pasta may power you through your miles, but on a brain-chemistry level running can actually aid the systems that prevent you from overindulging.

A study at the University of Western Australia found intense interval training was most effective in regulating appetite.

The researchers think this could be down to exercise curtailing production of ‘the hunger hormone’, ghrelin.

Other studies have shown working out in the heat is more effective in reducing appetite, so if curbing calorie intake is high on your priority list, consider the treadmill on winter days.

If your vices go beyond the biscuit tin, there’s more good news: when scanning smokers’ brains, University of Plymouth researchers found that areas associated with addiction showed less activity post-exercise.

Related: New study finds stopping exercise can increase the risk of depression after just two days

5. Memory jog

One particular area of the brain where a wealth of research has established the potential benefits of running is the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory.

One such study, conducted by Japanese researchers and published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, showed regular moderate exercise improved hippocampus-related memory in rats but, interestingly, rodents who picked up the intensity and did all their running faster than lactate threshold pace didn’t do any better in memory tests than a sedentary control group.

The scientists put this down to the stress of consistent hard training diverting the rats’ physiological resources to recovery rather than buffing up brain systems, and they believe the same would hold true in humans.

6. Build brain power…

Running does more than keep your existing grey matter well oiled; it could also trigger the growth of new brain tissue.

Exercise drives the growth of new nerve cells (neurogenesis) and blood vessels (angiogenesis), which combine to increase brain tissue volume, according to researchers at the University of Maryland, US.

This is crucial, as research has shown that we begin to lose brain tissue after our late 20s.

More specifically, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found regular exercisers increased the volume of their hippocampus – that part of the brain linked to learning and memory – by two per cent, compared with their inactive peers. That’s big news, as it was previously thought that this region of your grey matter couldn’t grow at all after childhood.

7. …and hold on to it

Staying fit as you age is vital in keeping your brain in good shape.

A study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found higher cardiorespiratory fitness in older people was associated with greater activity in various areas of the brain, including a region critical for high-level cognition.

And researchers at the University of Texas who found a correlation between fitness and cognitive function in middle-aged adults believe the link is at least partly down to fitness aiding better blood flow in the brain.

But don’t start too late. Analysing data from over 1,000 men and women, Boston University School of Medicine researchers found that those who were less fit at midlife (in their 40s) had less brain tissue volume 20 years down the line. The lesson? Exercise now for better brain function later.

8. Long-term benefit

To reinforce that message, a growing body of research is showing that the long-term mental return on your investment in running may be to reduce your risk of suffering from dementia.

One study, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found regular treadmill running early or late in life slowed cognitive decline and improved brain function in mice with a type of Alzheimer’s.

Research presented at the 2015 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference also found physical exercise may be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s and also reduces psychiatric symptoms of the disease. A study published in The Lancet found physical inactivity was the strongest modifiable risk factor for Alzheimer’s in the UK, Europe and the US.

Related: Study finds middle-aged women with a high level of fitness are 88% less ly to develop dementia

Much of the research has focused on the hippocampus, but running hasn’t been found to only help you form memories, but also to help you better access those memories.

Brain scans of early-stage Alzheimer’s patients found those who exercised showed more activity in the caudate nucleus, a brain region that supports memory circuits.

Running appears to improve the quality of the signals transmitted through those circuits. Yet another reason why running is just about the smartest move you can make.