The glimpse of running shoes, the sound of my Garmin beeping or the site of running shorts literally causes my Wiemararer, Austin to lose his mind. In fact, we are not aloud to say we are “going running” out loud in my house if Austin is anywhere nearby. If Austin does not get his regular run in he can be destructive, anxious and unhappy- just like me. Sound familiar?
We all know that exercise has positive effects on our body, our overall health and wellbeing. Running has been shown to help to improve the hearts ability to pump blood and oxygen through the body more efficiently. It also can decrease your resting heart rate, decrease blood pressure and decrease oxidative stress, which can affect tissue damage in the body1. Running is also a great way to manage weight and stress.
This afternoon as I tried to coral my over excited Weim to get out the door for a jog I started thinking about the effects running has on our brains. What is it that makes us crave running? Why do we instantly feel calmer after our feet hit the pavement? Why do so many type A, overachievers (hey its true!) run?
Anecdotally we may recognize that running allows us to “be human” after a stressful day at work. My husband routinely leaves my running shoes by the door when I am having a bad day- it is his silent cue that I need to get a few miles in for all of us.
So what exactly does running do for your Brain?
Research has found running can positively improve your mood and decrease incidence of depression in men, women, children and adults. Exercise, and specifically running has anti-depressant effects for mild depression in humans just as powerful as some anti-depressant medications2. There is also research that specifically notes improvements in mild depression in postpartum woman3 and older adults4. The “runners high” that many of us experience after a long, difficult run is not a myth.
Neural plasticity is essentially the idea that the brain can change how it functions and behaves based on emotional, environmental and physical stresses that we encounter. Running has been found to improve the speed at which signals are sent and received between brain cells2, to reduce brain tissue loss7 and can foster development of new neurons7.
Have you ever noticed that on the days you run things seem clearer or notice complex problems may not seem so complex? Studies have shown that running can improve cognition including your brain’s ability to process information and improve spatial learning7. It has also been linked with improvements in your learning and memory capabilities2.
No wonder running is so addictive. With all these health benefits it is hard to argue why we shouldn’t all be running! Next time your friend says to you “I only run when I am chased” just smile and remember that your not only is your body getting stronger with every step, so is your brain.
Hillman CH, Erickson KI, Kramer AF (2008) Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci 9:58–65
Vivar, C et al. All About Running: Synaptic Plasticity, Growth Factors and Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis Curr Top Behav Neurosci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2015 September 10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4565722/pdf/nihms-718798.pdf
Tenforde, A.S., et al (2015) Running Habits of Competitive Runners During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding. Sports Health a Multidisciplinary Approach, 7(2) 172-176.
Brown, AK et al. The effect of group-based exercise on cognitive performance and mood in seniors residing in intermediate care and self-care retirement facilities: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Sports Med 2009;43:608-614
Colcombe SJ, et al. Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2003; 58:176–180.
Boeker, H et al. The Runner’s High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex November 2008;18:2523-2531.
Chakravarty, EF et al. Reduced Disability and Mortality among Aging Runners: a 21-year Longitudinal Study. Arch Intern Med 2008 Aug 11; 168(15): 1638–1646.
Van Praag H. Neurogenesis and exercise: Past and future directions. NeuroMol Med 2008; 10:128–140.