LIFESTYLE

There's More To Running Than Getting Fit

As a form of vigorous aerobic exercise, has been tied to boosting neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. It's like spring cleaning your brain.

21/12/2016 09:57 SAST | Updated 21/12/2016 10:00 SAST
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There's a clear (and proven) magic to it.

We can learn a lot from running.

And no, we're not talking about the physical benefits (which are well known and widely proven). As a form of aerobic exercise, running offers unique benefits to our brain health.

And they are something to think about when you're gearing up for your next circuit.

What happens in our brain when we run?

If you're a runner yourself, you may be well acquainted with that sense of ecstasy that you feel when you engage in a vigorous run. This tends to result in a stress shake-off or low mood lift. So what's going on up there?

"When we engage in vigorous exercise, significant biochemical changes occur in the brain," Dr Muireann Irish, Senior Research Officer at Neuroscience Research Australia, told The Huffington Post Australia.

And they make us feel physically good.

"Endorphins or feel-good chemicals are released and the stress hormone cortisol is dampened. Increased blood flow to the brain further enhances the delivery of oxygen and glucose to neural tissue."

These biochemical changes result in a range of downstream benefits that can, in turn, improve learning and promote mental clarity (we'll get to these, later).

"And they make us feel physically good," Irish said.

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Move your body, move your brain.

What happens when we run regularly?

This is where things get fascinating. Running, as a form of vigorous aerobic exercise, has been tied to boosting neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Before you run in the opposite direction (not an entirely backward idea in itself), let us explain.

The term neuroplasticity refers to the brain's capacity to reorganise and form new neural connections during the course of our life.

Only one activity has been consistently shown to boost neurogenesis and that is regular aerobic exercise.

"For many years, scientists believed that we were born with a fixed number of neurons that by the time we reached adulthood, it was impossible to create new neurons," Irish said.

"The discovery of neurogenesis -- literally the birth of new brain cells -- has shattered this old mindset. Importantly, only one activity has been consistently shown to boost neurogenesis and that is regular aerobic exercise."

And it gets cooler.

"What is most striking, however, is that the location of these new brain cells is in the 'hippocampus' -- the memory centre of the brain," Irish said.

"This can potentially explain why people report improvements in their capacity to learn and remember following a run."

What are the long-term psychological effects?

These are now well established, with several studies documenting the robust links between regular running and improved cognitive clarity -- often long after the run itself.

Individuals who engage in regular running appear to be quicker to recover emotionally from disappointing or negative events.

According to Irish, one important area is emotional wellbeing.

"Studies have revealed that running can actually bolster our psychological resilience. Individuals who engage in regular running appear to be quicker to recover emotionally from disappointing or negative events," Irish said.

"These findings coincide with self-reports of runners who note that their outlook is invariably improved, enabling them to deal with life's challenges more effectively and with a more positive outlook."

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It can spur your creativity to great heights.

What if I'm a daydreamer?

People will typically fall into one boat or the other: they'll experience mindfulness or mind-wandering whilst running. According to Irish, both offer benefits.

"For some, running can promote an incredible sense of being 'in the moment' where all extraneous thoughts are filtered out... However, daydreaming is just as important to our everyday well being and emotion health," Irish said.

Many find that running affords a unique opportunity to truly disconnect from work pressures and to allow their thoughts to roam freely.

Have you ever reached your door feeling creatively inspired? That's common, too.

"All of these forms of spontaneous thinking are important for strengthening our sense of identity and for allowing disparate thoughts to come together -- sometimes resulting in unique acts of creativity."

So, get out there and run like the wind, people.