The benefits of being a runner stretch beyond being just a great form of exercise. Our minds and the act of moving our feet are interconnected in ways you’d never guess, and scientists continue to learn more about. Many problems that plague the brain can be alleviated, and chances of developing reduced, by going for regular or even occasional runs.
With the ASICS core ethos being a “Sound Mind in a Sound Body”, we decided to expand our knowledge and dive into the inner workings of how exactly running and the brain are connected, affected, and improved. From the famed runner’s high to triggering the growth of new cells, here’s part one in our series on how your brain benefits from being a runner.
Endorphin Release & Happiness Hormones
Ever wondered why runners are seemingly so on cloud nine? The famed runner’s high and elevated levels of endorphins are to thank. And lucky for everyone, it doesn’t take an hour-long run or great distance for an endorphin release to occur, resulting in feeling the mood-boosting effects. Researchers have found that on average, women experience it after just 9 minutes of running and men after 10 minutes.
Another key ingredient to being a happy human is serotonin. It’s easy for serotonin levels to become depleted throughout fast-paced days and prolonged periods of stress. Running happens to be one of the most effective forms of exercise to not only promote its release but increase the production of it. Post-run serotonin levels remain elevated, aiding in feelings of wellbeing and a blissful mood.
Running also aids in happiness by providing a feeling of achievement and satisfaction that you’ve accomplished something. Dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that sends signals from the body to the brain, is responsible for feelings of motivation and another contributing factor to the runner’s high. This promotes a general sense of accomplishment and simply feeling good along with providing a boost in self-confidence.
Taking to the pavement, tree-lined trails, waterfront walkways, or treadmills to run for stress relief is a benefit many runners cite as being a top motivator to stick with their routine. Acting as a great way to clear our heads, running can play a huge part in maintaining a sound mind and mental health.
Regular running is thought to reduce stress over the long term by building resilience to cortisol levels - our body’s primary stress hormone. Moving those feet helps create a higher tolerance to cortisol by triggering the release of it, resulting in a gradual resilience to, and reduction of stress levels over time. You’ll be better primed to adapt to daily stressors and become less prone to experience cortisol spikes during moments of stress.
Depression & Anxiety
Depression is suffered by countless New Zealanders and approximately 1 in 4 Kiwis will struggle with anxiety at some stage in life. It’s estimated 15% of the population are affected at any given time. Both are complicated to battle, but the mental benefits of running have proven to be incredibly valuable for easing the overwhelming feelings caused by depression and anxiety.
Incorporating outdoor runs in nature is one of the best things to do to reduce anxiety. Not only is the simple act of being outside a mood booster, so is soaking in some valuable vitamin D, which a deficiency of has been linked to depression and could also be a factor leading to anxiety disorders.
A lesser-known and surprising fact about running is, for some with mild to moderate cases of depression, it can be just as effective as antidepressants by causing mood improving neurotransmitters like serotonin to stay in the system for longer. But always be sure to consult with your doctor regarding what’s best for you and don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support from others when life gets hard.
Neuroplasticity & Neurogenesis
Scientists once thought the brain was incapable of change and ceased producing new neurons at or shortly after birth, but they’ve since discovered it’s highly adept at rejuvenating itself and continuing to make new connections throughout our lifetimes. Scratching your head at this fairly new science and two peculiar words? Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself and evolve by forming new pathways and connections. Neurogenesis is the creation of brain cells through the birth of new neurons.
Although neuroplasticity sounds as if it could be a negative characteristic of brain health, there’s nothing plastic about your brain when it's working to create new connections from region to region and strengthening existing pathways. The better our brain plasticity, the better able we are to effectively learn new skills, access older memories, retain new information and even recover from brain injury.
Neurogenesis occurs in the brain when we do things to promote its health. You may be surprised to learn some of the things scientists have discovered so far that help spark neurogenesis in your brain. Chewing crunchy things like corn chips and carrots, eating blueberries, drinking a single glass of red wine or green tea, consuming omega 3’s and curcumin, activities like meditating or hanky panky, and our obvious favourite, RUNNING.
Exercising and running in particular triggers the growth of new nerve cells, along with blood vessels, which come together to increase brain tissue volume. Scientists haven’t quite pinpointed why exactly this occurs in the brain during exercise but have identified a plethora of positive benefits. The act of running is potentially such a great contributor to cell regeneration thanks to boosted blood flow and the high level of hormones released when we’re in motion.
Not only do these rewards pay off by helping your brain to “stay young” by renewing itself - but in the bigger, long term picture of brain health - neurogenesis also aids in slowing the progression of cognitive decline or possibly even helping to prevent the onset of neurodegenerative disorders.
Researchers have found a lack of exercise can be a contributing factor to experiencing brain fog - a feeling that can often result in not being able to find the right words, forgetfulness, fatigue, and an inability to concentrate. Aerobic exercise at a heart-pumping rate provides an increase in blood flow to the brain and can offset many of those feelings by improving quality of sleep, memory, and mental clarity.
An increase in blood flow is an enormous bonus for brain health because it positively improves areas dedicated to memory function. Researchers have even discovered the size of certain regions of the brain is larger in individuals who exercise! It’s been found runners have a larger hippocampus, which is critical to learning and memory. Another part of the brain to have a greater volume in people who exercise is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for short term memory and our highest cognitive functioning. Functions like considering the consequences of our actions, focusing attention on a task, solving problems, and anticipating events in our environment. Exercise can even aid in maintaining the amount of gray matter and white matter volume in the brain over our lifespan.
Regularly lacing up those running shoes is beneficial for brain changes in other surprising ways as well. Here are some of our favourite surprising facts about the brain and running:
- Decision making and the ability to reason has been shown to improve with 30 minutes of running.
- Creativity or creative thinking is spurred with a run. It’s thought this comes about in part from being in forward motion and the brain associating that state with looking towards the future.
- The hunger hormone, ghrelin, decreases production during a run helping to curb cravings, quell the desires to reach for junk food, and reduce appetite.
- It’s been found runners possess elevated brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an important protein that impacts brain function by working to encourage new neuron growth, enforcing connections, and supporting the survival of cells.
- As mentioned, studies on runners have found them to have a bigger hippocampus which not only helps in forming memories but in better accessing old ones along with potentially even protecting from dementia.
- A boost in grey matter is beneficial because it plays the most significant role in normal brain functioning - controlling movement, sensory perception, emotions, memory function and more.
Learn exactly how to gain the brain rewards in part two, Slowing Cognitive Decline Through Running. Plus checkout our interview with Gilly Davy, a Neurological Physio who helps the brain through tough times with physical movement for individuals suffering from neurological impairments.
Maybe you’re new to running and not sure where to start? Visit our Knowledge Base with resources for learning how to become a runner and discover how to pick your first pair of running shoes.
Can exercise cure depression? Psychology Today
Exercise improves memory, boosts blood flow to brain Science Daily
Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills Harvard Health Publishing