It is something of a cliché among runners, how the activity never fails to clear your head. Does some creative block have you feeling stuck? Go for a run. Are you deliberating between one of two potentially life-altering decisions? Go for a run. Are you feeling mildly mad, sad, or even just vaguely meh? Go for a run, go for a run, go for a run. What does happen to our brain during these hours we are pounding the pavement.
I came across this fitting quote so thought i would share it with you The author Joyce Carol Oates wrote in a column for the New York Times that “in running the mind flees with the body … in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.” I like the way a runner named Monte Davis phrased it best, as quoted in the 1976 book The Joy of Running: “It’s hard to run and feel sorry for yourself at the same time,” he said. “Also, there are those hours of clear-headedness that follow a long run.”
A good run can sometimes make you feel like a brand-new person. And, in a way, that feeling may be literally true. About three decades of research in neuroscience have identified a robust link between aerobic exercise and subsequent cognitive clarity, and to many in this field the most exciting recent finding in this area is that of neurogenesis. Not so many years ago, the brightest minds in neuroscience thought that our brains got a set amount of neurons, and that by adulthood, no new neurons would be birthed. But this turned out not to be true. Studies in animal models have shown that new neurons are produced in the brain throughout the lifespan, and, so far, only one activity is known to trigger the birth of those new neurons: vigorous aerobic exercise, said Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology.
Other post-run changes have been recorded in the brain’s frontal lobe, with increased activity seen in this region after people adopt a long-term habit of physical activity. This area of the brain — sometimes called the frontal executive network system — is located, obviously enough, at the very front: It’s right behind your forehead. After about 30 to 40 minutes of a vigorous aerobic workout – enough to make you sweat – studies have recorded increased blood flow to this region, which, incidentally, is associated with many of the attributes we associate with “clear thinking”: planning ahead, focus and concentration, goal-setting and time management.
THE SCIENCE / EFFECT ON OUR MOOD
In a raft of studies, exercise – primarily in the form of, but not restricted to, running – has been shown to have several effects on the brain. It leads to the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that alleviate pain, both physical and mental.
Depression is related to low levels of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, both of which can be stimulated by the effect of exercise on the sympathetic nervous system. Also important are endorphins: chemicals released by the pituitary gland in response to stress or pain, which bind to receptors in the brain’s neurons to inhibit pain and promote feelings of euphoria. At a cellular level, it is possible that the mild stress caused by exercise stimulates an influx of calcium, which effectively ‘agitates’ proteins that promote the neurogenesis process. The upside is that exercise provides a natural trigger.
Running, in essence, can help fight the chemical imbalances that cause depression; a serious illness that can result in low mood, feelings of helplessness, self-harm and even suicide. “Depression can manifest itself in physical ways,” “You can suffer loss of energy, headaches, agitation or anxiety, and nutrition often suffers. There are also cognitive changes – loss of concentration, focus and confidence. Running can challenge all of these. GPs are able to prescribe gym memberships these days, and that’s because research has found that, in cases of mild or moderate depression, exercise is at least as effective as, if not more useful than, medication.
Most of us would have heard of the term “Runner’s high” but what is this?
We don’t hear the term ‘cyclist’s high’ or ‘rower’s high’. The reasons for this aren’t completely clear, but it’s likely that it’s because running is a movement humans learn naturally via walking as babies. It’s an extension of that natural movement pattern.
At a very basic level, most of us can run – that is, physically put one foot in front of the other at a pace faster than walking. And you don’t have to flog yourself if you’re new to it. The key for beginners is not to overdo it. “Intensity is quite complex”.
“If you’re unfit, running slowly is intense. Unfit people tend to start running at a high intensity and don’t enjoy it”. Intense exercise triggers a response in the brain that says, ‘Careful, we can’t keep this up,’ and that message comes in the form of negative emotions – feeling miserable, sad and tired. Moderately intense exercise associates with positive mood.
“But once you reach a certain level, doing intervals or completing a hard session can bring a tremendous sense of achievement. Overcoming doubts and fears that you can’t cope builds resilience, and this can raise self-esteem.”
The benefits of running extend beyond the chemical reactions in your brain. It can help change bad habits and give a sense of achievement. Sticking to a running programme is a form of exercising self-control, and self-control is a variable linked with a number positive attributes.
“Running is nothing more than a series of arguments between the part of your brain that wants to stop and the part that wants to keep going.”