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 a few of the benefits of participating in exercise.
While both anaerobic and aerobic forms of exercise are beneficial 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 — such as running in the mountains, near streams, off trail, in valleys, etc. — and challenging the body during runs — such as increasing the tempo of a run, setting a personal best in training, pushing beyond on some training days and running over rough terrain — are all related to effective strategies for improving brain function.
Running is especially good for adults and those in their 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, here is how running can make you smarter.
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.
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.
Current research shows that functional connectivity (neurons connecting with other neurons) is greater in runners than in sedentary individuals. Synchronization of neuron connections may lead to higher-level thought processes.
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 through exercise. Running, especially intense running, is one of the better ways to do this.
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.
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 in order to maintain a healthy body and mind. It’s also one of the most effective and accessible forms of aerobic exercise — so lace up, and get going!