Braining While Training: Science shows how running builds brain power along with the rest of the body

by Stephanie Mumford Brown

It’s taken a while, but I can now run and think at the same time.

Don’t laugh. This combo is harder than it looks for beginners, tougher even than simultaneous head-patting and stomach-rubbing.

I wasn’t totally brain-dead as a newcomer to running two years ago, but my thoughts were few and primal. Like, “How much further?” “Can I stop now?” And the classic, “Aaargh!”

Thinking while running has practical professional benefits. As a writer, I have a longtime habit of walking for creative purposes. My first newsroom job was on the opposite side of a sprawling industrial building from the restrooms, and when I got stuck on a story I’d announce, “I gotta go to the bathroom and find my lede.” Strolling for ideas gets even more efficient nowadays when I can do it aerobically.

I lost my motivation to train, though, when competition collapsed this year after Covid hit. Virtual races weren’t doing it for me, and I wasn’t quite ready to tackle the brave new world of segmented starts. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that my drive to run was as strong as ever—for braining, not training.

The mental payoff for running is both cognitive and psychological. Take my birthday, for instance. It gets trickier and trickier as the years pass, and I don’t need to be hitting a big one to teeter on an emotional cliff. When someone I cared about handed me a big fat birthday disappointment last month, it sent me plunging into to tears. I knew exactly how to deal with this letdown—hit the LSD!*

*Long slow distance

After a few miles of long slow distance along the Hudson River, I loved the world and everyone in it, and wanted to live forever as long as my family and friends could, too. I even forgave the disappointer. If that’s not a mind-altering high, what is?

Which raises the question: What exactly does running do to the brain? Runners know it’s a good thing, we talk casually about endorphins, but what’s the actual science here?

Answers are emerging ... gradually. As one researcher points out, there’s plenty of money for drug studies, but the private sector doesn’t benefit much from running as a cure. Still there’s some interesting recent findings among mice and men, and here’s a few highlights.

Mood Management

Runner’s high is the Big O of ambulation—desired by all, elusive for some. The chemicals involved may not be endorphins, however, so much as endocannabinoids (yeah, as in cannabis). Or both.

Johns Hopkins professor David Linden says endorphins may deaden the pain, but they’re not inducing euphoria. Exercise-generated endocannabinoids in the bloodstream can pass easily into the brain (unlike endorphins) and do their magic on your mood.

It’s not just fun and games. A Runners World excerpt from Scott Douglas’s book “Running Is My Therapy” notes that In Australia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, official guidelines include exercise as a first-line treatment for depression without side effects (except the occasional stitch). A meta-analysis of 11 exercise efficacy studies concludes that aerobics can be as effective as antidepressants.

“Exercise has a dramatic antidepressive effect,” says Linden. “It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.”

No wonder runners like to hang out together. We’re cheerful people.

Clearer Thinking

Running provides immediate improvement to reasoning as well as mood. If you face a complicated day, starting it with a run can boost your cognitive ability while lowering your stress—that’s how quickly the benefits appear in several studies. For a roundup, see “10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain,” in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest.

Intense sprints may not be a runner favorite, but they immediately enhance both ability to learn and executive function—which is not what CEOs do, but rather the mental skills that mere mortals use to get through a day of school or work, like remembering things, controlling themselves, and adjusting among tasks.

Acknowledging the demonstrated benefits of sustained runs, researchers wanted to see if sprinting would obtain them more quickly. Subjects served as their own controls in these “before and after” studies, and their mental performance was measured within minutes of sprinting.

Along with gauging sprinters’ ability to learn and remember made-up words, one study also measured changes in their blood, and found increased levels of chemicals that people pay good money for, like dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. In proper natural doses, these substances aid attention and memory.

In a third study, interval training over a longer period, seven months, increased sprinters’ cognitive flexibility. Taking tests that had them pressing keys à la primate, runners showed superior ability to adapt to rapid changes in instructions, compared to a control group.

Research on cognitive function hasn’t gone much beyond measuring speed and accuracy to explore the deeper realm of creativity, but there’s plenty of anecdotal testimony. Like how I got this article done.

Basically, I ran it down. During the first run I came up with the topic; on the second, I figured out how to organize the content; and I ran a third time to clear my head before I checked and submitted my draft. And at the end of each run I felt better than I started, mentally as well as physically.

Slower Aging

Here’s a not-so-fun-fact: Your brain shrinks about 5% per decade after you turn 40, and the pace picks up after 70. Along with shriveling grey matter—the nerve cells that deal with the senses, feelings, memory, and muscle control—production drops for dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that keep you happy and productive. For the gory details, see “Ageing and the brain” in Postgraduate Medical Journal.

Running fights mental decline by producing new brain cells, blood vessels to feed them, and chemicals to enable communication between them.

As reported recently in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a large, long-term German study compared VO2 max levels with MRI scans in more than 2,000 adults over 14 years. The results show a connection between better cardiovascular fitness and greater brain volume both overall and in grey matter, the 40% of the brain that Alzheimer’s disease attacks.

More specifically, running can increase cell growth in the hippocampus, the region that functions as library of memories and mental router. According to rodent research recently published in Physiology, “Running increases [hippocampus] cell proliferation, survival, and neuronal differentiation in correlation with synaptic plasticity and memory function.” At least if you’re a lab rat. Incidentally, those rodents were doing “voluntary” wheel-running, which suggests you gotta wanna do it to benefit from it.

Those benefits are pretty strong motivators, at least if you’re a human. Not only will running help you live longer by improving the health of your heart, lungs, muscles, and bones, but it will also help you enjoy those additional years by smartening up your brain.

Stephanie Mumford Brown is Chief Wiseacre at Wiseacre Press, where she’s trying to compile the missing assembly instructions for the second half of life. She also writes the Times Union Advancing blog.

Stephanie’s Archive
The Joys of Urban Trail Running
Drawing the Line. Finding the Gems
Running is my Boyfriend. Golf is my Crush

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