You’ve heard of the health benefits of running:
Running can reduce stress, improve heart health, boost the ability to learn, and even help you live longer. Researchers have found that runners live, on average, three years longer than non-runners; running protects against two of the most common causes of mortality: cardiovascular disease and cancer.
But the health benefits of running aren’t limited to your body because research also shows us running is beneficial for your brain, too.
When you’re cramming for your next exam, you may want to step away from the books and head for the nearest trail, because running could help your brain learn better.
Running (among other types of physical activity) promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth in many important cortical areas of the brain and increases growth factors, which make it easier for the brain to grow new neural connections.
Sprinting may bring even more brain benefits than a prolonged, gentle jog.
Researcher Bernward Winter and his colleagues tested runners’ abilities to learn new made-up words for objects after either two intense sprints of three-minutes length or after forty minutes of gentle running. Participants were able to learn twenty percent faster after the sprints and showed higher memory retention when tested again a week later.
More Focused Attention
Could running be the secret to better mental performance?
Running triggers the increased released of endorphins in the brain. In one study, researchers found that seven weeks of interval running boosted cognitive flexibility in subjects who showed improvements at rapid switches in task instructions.
Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, explains, “If you are exercising so that you sweat — about 30 to 40 minutes — new brain cells are being born, and it just happens to be in the hippocampus memory area.”
Running quickly for half an hour improves the “cortical flicker frequency” threshold associated with the ability to process information more effectively.
Other post-run brain changes have included increased blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe, an area of the brain associated with clear thinking, planning, focus and concentration, goal-setting, and time management.
Improved Emotional State
You know that feel-good state you enter after a great run or workout? It turns out, “runner’s high” is a real thing.
Researchers found intense treadmill running is associated with increased circulation of endocannabinoids – endogenous brain chemicals. Running was associated with reductions in activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, and for the first hour after running, participants also reported feeling more relaxed.
Many runners report that going for a jog has a calming effect, helping their brains dial back levels of worry and rumination.
Runners who can focus and tune into their body and breath promote mindfulness. In a way, you could say running serves as a meditative activity.
Protect Against Dementia
Running may have a protective effect against dementia and Alzheimers.
“There’s a lot of promising research that shows physical activity and exercise are associated with a healthier brain and higher cognitive functioning,” according to Ryan Dougherty, a UW Health graduate student and researcher in the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
“Those who live more active lifestyles have less Alzheimer’ s-related pathology in their brains than those who are less active,” Dougherty says.
Run for Your Body—and Your Brain
Going for a run does far more than simply support your physical health. It’s also a great way to support the health of your brain, too. Going out for a run could be one of the best things you can do to feel less stressed, get more focused, and even protect against dementia, so there’s no better time than now to lace up your shoes and hit the pavement.