Research published in recent years indicates that, in addition to improving physical fitness, running also affects brainpower. While changes in the brain can vary across individuals and according to their preference for sprints or long-distance runs, the benefits of running for mental health include improved emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, and ability to learn.
In a recent article published in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, Christian Jarrett summarized multiple research studies and outlined 10 ways that running has been shown to affect brainpower:
- Running can change the brain’s wiring, increasing connectivity between neural regions of the brain and heightening cognitive engagement.
- Intense sprinting (10-second sprints for ten minutes) can enhance executive functioning immediately following the sprint sets and for 45 minutes afterwards.
- Intense sprints can boost your ability to learn. It was suggested that participant’s enhanced ability to learn and remember made-up words may be linked to the increased levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in the brain associated with running.
- Interval training can boost cognitive flexibility. Individuals adapted better to rapid switches in task instructions in a computerized keypress task after seven weeks of interval training (running fast for 200m-1,000m with periods of rest).
- Feeling euphoric after intense running (experiencing a “runner’s high”) may be linked to increased levels of endorphins and other chemicals released in the brain, such as endocannabinoids, which bind to the same receptors in the brain as cannabis.
- While no significant, scientific correlation was found, anecdotally, runners report that running can help quiet the mind and reduce worry and rumination.
- A short jog may help individuals better handle negative emotions.
- In studies on rats and mice, running was linked to increases in the growth of new neurons.
- Extreme endurance running (competing in the Trans-Europe-FootRace ultramarathon where athletes run 3,000 miles over 64 days) temporarily shrank the brain’s grey matter by approximately 6%. This is significant since normal aging is associated with a volume loss of 0.2% per year. Fortunately, pre-race grey matter volume was completely regained within 8 months of the race.
- There is evidence that the satisfaction of running a marathon seems to gradually wipe away memories of the pain endured during the race (blisters, chaffing, cramps, etc.).
These findings point to how running affects brainpower as well as one’s overall health and fitness. In addition, they indicate that including increased opportunities for intense exercise during the school or work day may help to improve performance.
Written By: Debra A. Kellen, PhD