It may seem evident that running can have a significant impact on your mental state as you struggle through a long run while rapidly alternating between feelings of misery and elation. It is an intuitive notion that more and more neuroscientists are starting to take seriously. In recent years, they have begun to demonstrate what truly transpires while you run on the hills and valleys of your grey matter.
Their findings support what many runners already know from personal experience: that we may use running as a tool to enhance our thoughts and emotions. We are now discovering the precise reasons why jogging helps restore attention, reduce stress, and elevate mood. We also understand the reason why, if you’re fortunate, you might catch a glimpse of nirvana.
It would be absurd to think that all of our psychological issues can be resolved by running. In fact, you might not want to exert too much pressure on it from the viewpoint of your brain. Before, during, and after the TransEurope Foot Race, in which racers slog over 3,000 miles over 64 straight days, German neuroscientists analyzed the brains of some of the competitors. The runners’ grey matter had reduced in volume by 6% in the middle of this extremely extreme ultramarathon, compared to the ‘normal’ shrinking that comes with getting older, which is only 0.2% annually. Fortunately, a happy ending may be found because the runners’ brains returned to normal after eight months.
But if going far can be counterproductive, it is now evident that shorter, more modest runs can have very meaningful advantages. First, a number of recent studies demonstrate why going for a run might aid in regaining control in a world where smartphones overwhelm us with stimulus and blur the lines between work and life.
For instance, a 2018 study from West Michigan University found that jogging quickly for 30 minutes increases the “cortical flicker frequency” threshold. This relates to having the capacity to process information more effectively. Interval training enhances many facets of “executive function,” according to two other studies from Nottingham Trent University and the Lithuanian Sports University. This group of high-level mental abilities includes the capacity to focus, block out distractions, switch between tasks, and solve issues. After 10 minutes of interval sprinting, meaningful improvements were quickly noticeable among the young people in the study. Additionally, they increased after the seven weeks of training.
According to Swedish research, running can block at least one key biological stress route.
These findings are closely related to a brain imaging study conducted by David Raichlen at the University of Arizona. Compared to similarly matched non-runners, they observed definite changes in the brain activity of dedicated runners. Because it is obviously impossible to run within a brain scanner, neuroscientists focused on the brain while it was at rest. First, they noticed more coordinated activity in areas of the brain known to be involved in executive functioning and working memory, primarily near the front of the brain. This is logical. Second, scientists observed a relative decline in activity in the “default mode network,” a group of interconnected brain areas that activate anytime we are unoccupied or distracted. Your inner monologue, the cause of daydreaming, and the voice that dwells on the past are all products of your default mode network. Its effects, which have been linked to clinical depression, are not necessarily pleasant or beneficial.
Raichlen’s research was preliminary, but if it is later confirmed, it will support the notion that jogging can be a type of mobile mindfulness meditation. According to brain imaging studies, jogging and meditation both have a tendency to activate executive functions while simultaneously quieting the default mode network. Again, this seems intuitively correct: while running, you are likely to be fully present, tuned into your physical state, and aware of your breathing. These are all important objectives of mindfulness-based techniques. Therefore, putting on your running shoes and going for a run could be a method to experience some of the psychological advantages of mindfulness. Businesses are also becoming aware of the therapeutic benefits of running. I recently collaborated with the running shoe manufacturer Saucony to produce a podcast about the mental benefits of running.
You can improve your mental health by running.
All of this may begin to clarify why some individuals believe that mindfulness and running can both be effective coping mechanisms for stress and sadness. Recent studies from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden demonstrate how running can block at least one significant biological stress mechanism on a molecular level.
Your liver’s metabolic mechanisms change the amino acid tryptophan into a compound with the mumble-inducing name of knyurenine when you are under stress. Some of the knyurenine makes its way into your brain, where it accumulates and has been linked to schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and sadness brought on by stress. An enzyme called kynurenine aminotransferase accumulates in your muscles as a result of exercise. This enzyme converts the related chemical kynurenic acid from kyurenine, which is significant since it cannot enter the brain. Running helps to remove a drug that may harm your mental health from your bloodstream by exerting your skeletal muscles. It is significant to remember that some of the specifics of this mechanism have only been demonstrated in laboratory animals due to technical and ethical considerations.
Even Saucony called their most recent shoe line “White Noise” after the stress-relieving qualities of running.
It may not seem logical at first why exercising your legs should have a direct impact on your mood. This work is a potent reminder that your brain is just another bodily organ and offers uncommon insight into the frequently enigmatic connections between brain and body. It is inevitable that your actions with your body will have an impact on your mental health.
Running can improve your mood beyond just reducing stress.
Some fortunate individuals brag about their “runner’s high” encounters, which they describe as intense feelings of joy and invincibility. I’ve never been able to achieve it through running, but we do know more about the strong chemical rewards that it produces in the brain.
A number of studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that running causes an increase in beta-endorphin levels in your blood, which gave rise to the concept of the “endorphin rush.” Beta-endorphin has some biological effects that are comparable to those of opiates and targets the same receptors. But because beta-endorphin can not easily penetrate the blood-brain barrier, the endorphin rush theory has always had a problem. How could it give you a high if it didn’t go into your brain?
German neuroscientists corrected that in 2008. They demonstrated through the use of functional brain imaging that trained runners do indeed experience a brain-wide increase in beta-endorphin levels following a two-hour run. The runners’ self-reported experiences of ecstasy were similarly connected with higher levels of endorphin activation in the brain.
While you are running, there are other substances besides homemade opiates that can make the pain go away and make you happier. A large family of naturally occurring substances called endocannabinoids bind to the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain as cannabis. After 30 minutes of fairly vigorous treadmill jogging, the blood’s level of circulating endocannabinoids increases. Extensive research on lab mice demonstrates that endocannabinoids are what causes running-induced reductions in anxiety and pain perception. The similar mechanism probably operates in our minds as well. Many of us may never experience a drug-like high from running. But now we understand how a run that feels like murder at the beginning can make you feel content and at ease by the finish line.
Some of these research still need to be developed. And it is unquestionably true that a variety of other factors, like your gender, genetic make-up, level of fitness, expectations, and many others, will affect how your brain reacts to running. Nevertheless, I viewed all of these neuroscientific findings as positive news.
While the physical advantages of running and aerobic exercise are widely known, we are only now beginning to understand the significant advantages running can have on mental health. Knowing this should strengthen your resolve to go for runs more frequently.