8 ways running stimulates your brain

A complete rundown of the wonders worked on our brains by the simple act of running.

by Joe Mackie
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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.

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

Unlike 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.

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.

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. 

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.

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