So, you already know that running will boost your heart and lungs. You probably also know that it’s the best way to say goodbye to that lingering Christmas bulge. But if your enthusiasm has been pummeled by dark nights and plateauing performances, there’s more to help get you out of the door: new research shows a strong link between running and a ‘younger’, more nimble brain.
Vigorous cardiovascular activity pumps more oxygen- and glucose-rich blood to your noggin and when you make running a frequent habit, the rewards are long-term. All forms of exercise generate more energy for the brain, but research shows that the more aerobically challenging the exercise, the greater the payoff for your grey cells. Here’s how your workout gets your brain in shape.
The bus-plus-crossword combo may give you a chance to flex your grey matter, but it can’t compete with working up a sweat.
Running sparks the growth of fresh nerve cells – a process called neurogenesis – and new blood vessels, which is known as angiogenesis, says Dr J Carson Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, US, who studies the role exercise plays in brain function. “We know that neurogenesis and angiogenesis increase brain tissue volume, which otherwise shrinks as we age,” he says.
In a recent study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), older adults who exercised regularly increased the volume of their hippocampus – the region of our brains linked to learning and memory – by two per cent, compared to their inactive peers. That may not sound like much until you consider that this part of the brain isn’t known for increasing at any point in adulthood. What’s more, running appears to ‘rescue’ many brain cells that would otherwise die. Now, if you could just manage the crossword on the treadmill…
Running improves your ability to store new information and memories, and can potentially stave off age-related dementia. The hippocampus, a seahorse- shaped structure tucked under the medial temporal lobe, is most affected by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
In another recent study, also published in PNAS, adult mice ‘runners’ grew new neurons that made them better at making fine distinctions between shapes and colours than sedentary rodents. Earlier studies on humans came to similar conclusions. These types of cognitive skills, including improved focus, help keep dementia at bay.
Lacing up may sharpen the executive functions that happen in your frontal cortex – decision-making, planning, organising and juggling mental tasks – according to Japanese research. So a daytime run could ensure your Tesco online shop doesn’t arrive with your sister for her birthday, while you’re left with a cashmere scarf for dinner.
Running may be as effective as – and sometimes better than antidepressants. The pills work by keeping neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the synapses longer, improving mood. It turns out that aerobic exercise does the same thing. And in studies, patients who were successfully treated with pills relapsed sooner than those who stayed physically active.
Being active is key not just to making memories, but finding them when you want to. In a study of patients diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, those who exercised were better able to recall the names of famous people. Although no amount of running will mean you’re able to remember which one is Ant and which is Dec, there is further evidence that it improves memory.
Brain scans reveal activity in the caudate nucleus, an area involved in motor function and which also supports memory circuits. Running appears to boost the quality of the signals being transmitted through those circuits, which means you have better access to the zillions of details you’ve got stored there. It may even include the useful things.