Everyone knows how beneficial running is for general health, but some of the biggest benefits of being a runner are found in our brain. It turns out the mind and the act of moving our feet are interconnected in ways you’d never imagine, and researchers are continuously learning more about. Many problems that plague the brain can be alleviated, and chances of developing reduced, by going for regular or even occasional runs. 

With the help of ASICS NZ whose core ethos is a “Sound Mind in a Sound Body”, we decided to dive into the inner workings of exactly how running and the brain are interconnected. From the miraculous ability to trigger the growth of new brain cells to helping improve mental health, here’s how your brain benefits from being a runner. 

Runner’s High & Happiness Hormones

Ever wondered what’s behind the famed runner’s high and why runners are seemingly in such great spirits after a run? Elevated levels of endorphins are to thank. And great news, it doesn’t take an hour-long run or great distance for an endorphin release to occur, resulting in feeling the mood-boosting effects. It’s been found by researchers that on average, women experience runner’s high after just 9 minutes of running and men after 10 minutes. 

Serotonin is another key ingredient to being a happy human. Fast-paced days and prolonged periods of stress make it easy for levels of this neurotransmitter to become depleted. Exercise is an excellent way of restoring it, and running has been found to be one of the most effective forms of exercise to do so. Not only does a run promote its release but helps to increase production. Feelings of wellbeing and a blissful mood are aided by serotonin levels remaining elevated post-run.

A feeling of achievement and satisfaction you’ve accomplished something after running also boosts happiness. Dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter responsible for sending signals from the body to the brain, is another contributing factor to the runner’s high. It provides those feelings of motivation, ultimately promoting a sense of achievement, which helps to give a raise in self-confidence and simply feeling good.

Reducing Stress

Acting as a great way to clear our heads, running can play a significant role in maintaining a sound mind and improving mental health. Taking to the footpath, tree-lined trail, track, or treadmill to run for stress relief is a benefit many runners cite as being a top motivator to stick with their routine.

It’s been found our bodies form resilience to cortisol levels, the primary stress hormone, over the long term by regularly going running. Oddly enough, moving those feet helps produce a higher tolerance to cortisol by actually triggering the release of it. This results in developing a gradual resilience to, and reduction of stress levels over time. You’ll be better primed to adapt to life’s daily stressors and over time less prone to spikes in cortisol during stressful situations.

Depression & Anxiety

Countless New Zealanders suffer from depression and approximately 1 in 4 Kiwis will struggle with anxiety at some stage in life. 15% of the population are estimated to be affected at any given time. Depression and anxiety are both complicated to battle, but the mental benefits of running have proven incredibly valuable for easing the overwhelming feelings. 

One of the best activities to reduce anxiety is an outdoor run in nature. Not only is the simple act of being outside a major mood booster, so is soaking up valuable vitamin D. A deficiency of which has been linked to depression and could be a contributing factor to anxiety disorders. 

An even more surprising and lesser-known fact is, for some with mild to moderate cases of depression, running can be just as effective as antidepressants by causing mood improving neurotransmitters like serotonin to remain in the system for longer. It’s important to always consult with your doctor regarding what’s best for you. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support from others when the going gets tough. 

Neuroplasticity & Neurogenesis

Scientists until fairly recently believed the brain wasn’t capable of change and that it ceased producing new neurons in childhood. They’ve since discovered this isn’t true and the brain is highly adept at rejuvenating itself, making new connections throughout life. Scratching your head at this somewhat new science and two peculiar words? Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change, working to evolve by forming new pathways and connections. Neurogenesis is the process of creating brain cells through the birth of new neurons. 

Neuroplasticity may sound as if it could be a negative characteristic of brain health; however, there’s nothing plastic about the brain when it’s working hard to create new connections from region to region and strengthening existing pathways. The better our brain plasticity, the better able we are to learn new skills effectively, retain new information, access old memories, and even recover from brain injury.

Neurogenesis is triggered in the brain when we do things to promote its health. Some of the methods scientists have discovered so far that help spark neurogenesis are surprising. Consuming blueberries, a single glass of red wine or green tea, omega 3’s and curcumin, even chewing crunchy things like corn chips and carrots. Also, activities like meditating or hanky panky, and our favourite, RUNNING

Going for a run can activate the growth of new nerve cells, along with blood vessels, which come together to increase the volume of brain tissue. Scientists haven’t yet pinpointed precisely why this occurs in the brain during exercise but have identified a plethora of positive benefits. Running is potentially such a great contributor to cell regeneration thanks to boosted blood flow and the high level of hormones released when we’re in motion. 

These rewards pay off through helping your brain to “stay young” by renewing itself. In the larger, long-term picture, neurogenesis can also slow the progression of cognitive decline or possibly even prevent the onset of neurodegenerative disorders. 

Brain Fog

Exercise has been found to contribute to higher mental alertness and focus with researchers finding a lack of physical activity can contribute to experiencing brain fog – that groggy feeling resulting in forgetfulness, fatigue, an inability to concentrate and struggling to find the right words. Luckily one of the best ways to avoid it is through heart-pumping aerobic exercise. The resulting increase in blood flow to the brain helps offset the feelings of fogginess by improving mental clarity, memory, and quality of sleep.

Increased blood flow is an enormous bonus for brain health as it positively improves areas dedicated to memory function. Researchers have even found runners have a larger hippocampus, an area of the brain critical to learning and memory. Another region of the brain to have a greater volume in people who exercise is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for short term memory and higher-level cognitive functioning. This includes things like problem-solving, considering the consequences of our actions, and anticipating events in our environment. Additionally, the amount of gray matter and white matter volume maintained over our lifespan is positively impacted by exercise.

Overall Health & Wellbeing

Lacing up the running shoes on a regular basis offers other unexpected beneficial brain changes. Here are some of our favourite surprising facts about the brain and running:

  • Improvements in the ability to reason and make decisions have been exhibited with just 30 minutes of running.
  • A run can help curb cravings, reduce appetite, and quell desires for junk food by decreasing production of the hunger hormone ghrelin.
  • Running can contribute to elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an essential protein for brain function that encourages new neuron growth, supporting the survival of cells, and enforcing neural connections. 
  • As mentioned, studies have found runners to possess a bigger hippocampus which helps not just with forming new memories but better accessing old ones. Potentially even protecting from dementia.
  • Increased grey matter is advantageous as it plays the most vital role in normal brain functioning – actions like movement control, emotional responses, memory function, sensory perception and more.
  • Creative thinking and greater creativity are spurred with running. Researchers believe this is due in part to being in forward motion and the brain associating that state with looking towards the future.

To learn more on the connection between running and the brain read about How Running Works to Slow Cognitive Decline.

This post was brought to you by ASICS New Zealand. For running and training gear designed for performance, and running shoes that will help you excel, check out their Women’s Running Shoes and Men’s Running Shoes.