We all know running can help keep your body fit and toned – but did you know it can have the same effect on your brain? Researchers in Britain, Europe and America have found that memory, the ability to process information and decision-making are all more effective in runners than inactive people. In fact, American chief executives claim running in their spare time improves their work performance, as well as their physical fitness. Which is good news all round!
The science bit
It used to be thought that human brains stopped producing new cells with age and that, as people got older, brain cells also died off, so brain power diminished. Scientists now know that the human brain continues to generate new brain cells throughout a lifetime and that physical activity, such as running, actually boosts the growth of brain cells. Recent research by neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge and the National Institute on Aging, in Maryland, USA, studied two groups of mice, only one of which had access to a running wheel. The runners produced as many as 6,000 new brain cells in every cubic millimetre of brain tissue in an area called the “dentate gyrus” – part of the hippocampus, which is concerned with memory. And a study at the University of Illinois, USA, found that improving fitness levels by five per cent through running could result in a 15 per cent improvement in mental tests. It also discovered that keeping fit might even help ward off conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, which can blight the lives of older people.
Scientists are not yet sure exactly why exercise seems to stimulate the brain into producing new cells. Running raises the heart rate and increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, as well as other parts of the body, so this may be why the brain is able to produce so many more new cells. It might also be linked to higher levels of hormones, which are released when you exercise, or to a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to inhibit cell growth.
Of course, running doesn’t just improve brain power – there are other mental benefits, too. Regular runners will be aware of the altered mental state they can experience after running – the so-called “runner’s high”. This is a calm, almost euphoric state, which can result in increased self-esteem, confidence and feelings of accomplishment. It occurs because aerobic exercise leads to the release of feel-good chemicals, called endorphins,
which help to combat stress, relieve anxiety, enhance mood and decrease the perception of pain. Celebrities, including model Nell McAndrew, singer Alanis Morissette and double Olympic gold medal-winning sailor Sarah Ayton, are among those who testify to the mental benefits of a run. “For a start, just being in the fresh air gives me a chance to mentally switch off and reflect on my day” says Ayton. And Morissette agrees, stating: “If ever I’m going through something emotional and just go outside for a run, you can rest assured I will come back with clarity and empowerment”.
Sports psychologist Carole Seheult says the impact of running on mental wellbeing is of vital importance. “Even the guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence say that the first treatment for mild depression should be to get active” she says. “I’d always suggest exercise to depressed or anxious patients”. Running clubs can also enhance emotional wellbeing, offering companionship as well as the opportunity to get fit. “While you’re running, you can talk to other people, and as you are shoulder to shoulder rather than face to face, it can be easier to air your feelings,” says Seheult.
Let there be light
Scandinavian research has shown that light levels make a difference to your mental health, too. This has to do with seroto levels, and is the reason people use light boxes to help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Brightly lit gyms are proven to be better than dimly lit ones at increasing feelings of wellbeing, and running in the open air on a sunny day can give a mental boost, even in winter. “If everyone working in offices went for a lunchtime run in the park, they’d be far better able to tackle an afternoon’s work” says Carole. “I don’t think there’s the money around to design scientific experiments to prove how successful running is in improving mental wellbeing. But people go by experience and vote with their feet. You can’t return from a run feeling grumpy – you always feel good”.
Why running is good for your brain:
* The extra oxygen and glucose supplied to your brain can improve your concentration and provide you with a natural energy boost.
* Endorphins, known as “feel-good hormones”, are released when you run and bind to receptors in your brain, which provides pain relief and can lead to a feeling of euphoria, known as “runner’s high”. Tension, stress, mental fatigue, anger and frustration can all be ‘run off’, leaving you with a quiet, untroubled mind.
* As you achieve your running goals – whether it’s running further or completing a charity challenge – your self-confidence and self-esteem will receive a tremendous boost. This will then spill over into other areas of your life and help you solve problems.
* Running – either by yourself when you may meet other runners, or as part of a running group – gets you out and about, and can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.
* Most runners “hit the wall” from time to time and experience the frustration of being “stuck” at one level. Persevere through that feeling and you will find you can use the experience to help you in other areas of your life. Perseverance pays!
* Long-term benefits of running include an improvement in “executive functions”, such as forward planning, reasoning, problem solving and multi-tasking. When energy is flowing freely, it allows space for ideas to flourish and creative juices to flow, so work performance can improve. Running benefits older people, too – 12 weeks of jogging led to significantly better scores in computer tests for a group of American senior citizens.
* Running in the open air brings you closer to nature and provides you with time for reflection, which can help put your everyday problems into perspective, rather like meditation. Make sure you incorporate some green space into your regular running routes, whether that means an urban park, country lane, woodland area, canal route or riverbank.
* Running enables you to escape from your everyday environment and get away from the irritations of modern life, such as the TV, phone, computer, and even your family and friends. We all need time in our busy lives to re-connect with ourselves and simply “be”.