With ever improving technology and a growing understanding of how the brain and body operate, researchers have been making fascinating discoveries about the positive effects of physical activity on the mind. Specifically, scientists have uncovered several connections between running and improved brain functioning.
We’ve known for years that running is “an excellent means of conditioning the cardiovascular system.” Recently, running has also been associated with positive developments in the mind, such as higher rates of neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells), improved emotional control, and enhanced cognitive abilities. These aren’t the type of benefits we usually discuss when promoting physical activity, yet they have great potential for improving our daily functioning.
Neurogenesis and Memory
Neurogenesis refers to the growth and development of neurons. This process is most active during infancy, but continues into adulthood, enhancing the functionality of our brains. A 2016 Finnish study found that sustained aerobic exercise, “such as running,” spurs the development of neurons in the hippocampus. This is significant, since previous studies have shown that hippocampal neurons produced through neurogenesis play a major role in our memory process.
The connection between running and memory was examined more closely in the following Cambridge study. Researchers housed 20 mice in spaces where they had regular access to food and water. Half of the mice were also given access to a running wheel, while the other half had no exercise tools whatsoever.
Researchers then tested the mice’s memory skills based on their ability to recall which part of a touch-screen they needed to stimulate in order to receive a food pellet. The Cambridge associates found that when the stimuli (opportunities to touch the screen) were presented in close proximity to one another, the mice who’d had access to running wheels performed significantly better than their more sedentary counterparts. Thus, the study suggested that aerobic exercise enhances the functioning of our brain’s memory centers.
Research also suggests that aerobic exercise helps us regulate our emotions. In a 2015 study, Emily Bernstein and Richard McNally asked a group of volunteers whether they typically responded well or poorly to negative stimuli. They then asked the participants to either jog or stretch for 30 minutes; afterwards, the volunteers were exposed to a sad stimulus (in this case, a clip from the film The Champ).
While the participants who’d identified as struggling to handle negative emotions did seem to be more intensely affected by the clip, the degree to which they were affected was significantly reduced if they had spent the previous half-hour jogging rather than stretching. Bernstein and McNally concluded that “moderate aerobic exercise appears to have helped those participants…to be less susceptible to the impact or lingering effects” of the stimulus.
It’s also widely known that exercise releases endorphins, AKA “feel good chemicals,” to the brain. The phrase “runner’s high” is often used to describe the elevated mood runners feel as a result of this release. Further, the accomplishment of completing a difficult run or feeling more “in shape” can have its own positive, psychological effects that serve to enhance a person’s mood.
For those who prefer running in short bursts over sustained periods of jogging, studies suggest that high-intense sprints improve our learning functionality.
In an article for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Bernward Winter describes an experiment in which he tested participants’ ability to learn made-up words after either two intense sprints, 40 minutes of gentle running, or a period of resting. The participants who engaged in sprints learned the new words 20 percent faster than their counterparts, and showed superior retention when they were tested again a week later. Winter and his colleagues believe this may be due to the increased levels of dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the sprinters’ systems.
The takeaway? Next time you have a major presentation to prepare for, you might want to get a quick sprint in beforehand.
The Brain-Body Connection
All of this new information showcases the deep relationship between our brains and bodies (if we can really even differentiate between the two). Running isn’t the only way to reap benefits from that connection—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) utilizes the links between sensory stimulation and our past memories/experiences, and cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) often involve examining our physical responses to stressors (sweaty hands, increased heart rate) and developing new coping methods.
How do certain physical activities affect your mood? Does yoga soothe your stress? Does weight-lifting increase your sense of motivation? How about simply resting—-does it make you feel energized, relaxed, open to new experiences, etc?
We encourage you to examine the connections between your physical activity and your mental wellbeing, either on your own or with the guidance of a professional mind or bodyworker.
Not sure which activity to start with? Consider the matter over a quick jog.