Increased muscle mass, efficient and protective functioning of the cardiovascular system, weight control, increased bone mass, reduction in degenerative disease,and positive mood states are just of few of the benefits from participating in exercise. While both anaerobic and aerobic forms of exercise are of benefit and should be included in any exercise program, aerobic exercise (swimming, cross country skiing, cycling, walking, jogging and especially running) has significant positive effects on the brain. Furthermore, changing the environmental setting (running in the mountains, near streams, off trail, in valleys, etc.) and challenging the body during runs (such as increasing tempo of a run, setting a personal best in training, pushing beyond on some training days, running over rough terrain, etc.) are all related to effective strategies for improving brain function.
Running is especially good for the adult and elderly years as it promotes neuroplasticity of the brain. This is more important as we age because of the loss of neurons and declining memory function that usually takes place. Along with the dynamic neural plasticity changes in the brain that are engendered from running, several other adjustments are also going on. Summarizing what neuroscience has discovered about the brain in recent years, the following is a partial list of the benefits that accrue from running in a diverse environment, challenging self and socializing with other runners.
Increases Blood Flow. Because of increased blood flow, additional oxygen and glucose are supplied to the brain for nourishment, efficiency and fulfilling the need of this organ to operate. The greater the blood flow to the brain, the more apt nerve cells are to receive these vital substances for operating efficiently. Restriction of any of these materials to brain cells could cause serious future problems. Even small reductions weaken the brain, causing future deterioration to this organ.
Maintains Brain Mass. The purpose of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is to increase neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) and produce more efficient connections and communication between neurons. Nerve cells can continue to expand and increase even though there is shrinkage in the size of the brain as we age. Running and other aerobic exercises not only increase BDNF, but also new blood vessels and mass to the brain. Therefore, brain shrinkage is minimized.
Enhances high-level thinking. Current research shows that functional connectivity (neurons connecting with other neurons) is greater in runners than sedentary individuals. Synchronization of neuron connections may lead to higher-level thought processes.
Supports Learning and Memory. The hippocampus, an area of the brain that is responsible for memory and emotion formation, begins to shrink in size as we age. One of the most effective ways to preserve hippocampal tissue is exercise. Running, especially intense running, is one of the better ways to do this.
Forces Us to Think Differently. Studies have also demonstrated that enriched environments positively affect brain function. Running in an environment that utilizes the many senses of the body to feed information about the diversity of the environment and the landscape may stimulate positive brain changes. Furthermore, such skills as monitoring the course, planning a strategy during the run, navigating the course run, thinking about previous runs and performing the many motor skills to change pace or movements throughout the course are all mentally challenging situations encountered by the runner.
Increases Alertness. Exercise enhances brain waves. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), which demonstrates electrical impulses, it was determined that aerobic exercise augments brain activity, causing a more acute state of readiness and response to the environment. Along with this more alert state, aerobic exercise has been determined to positively affect the visual cortex that may influence perception and decision making.
Running offers many opportunities for challenge. Getting ready to run every day is a challenge. Changing training workouts at least once or twice a week, running up hills and mountains, pushing to the limit, setting a course record and passing a competitor in a race are just a few of the many challenges faced by a runner. Running is one of the most effective and accessible forms of aerobic exercise to maintain a healthy brain — so lace up, and get going!