The Mental & Cognitive Benefits of Running
Everyone knows that intense aerobic exercises like running result in improved physical condition and well-being, help with weight and promote a healthy, active lifestyle. Running may also provide a number of mental and cognitive benefits. Many runners believe that the psychological and mental benefits of running actually outweigh the most significant physical benefits, according to marathon runner and trainer Don Garber in his book, “Basic Marathon Training.”
How it Helps
Like every other form of aerobic exercise, running promotes the production and release of your body’s natural pain- and stress-fighting chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins are endogenous opioids — meaning your body produces them on its own — responsible for the feeling of “runner’s high.” A study published in 2008 in “Cerebral Cortex” reports that endorphins flood the brain during intense periods of physical activity, causing specific effects in the frontolimbic brain areas that are involved in the processing of affective states and mood.
Running can help increase your self-esteem and feelings of self-confidence. When you finish your first marathon, for example, you prove to yourself that you are capable of accomplishing anything you set your mind to. It requires discipline, motivation, determination and inner strength — all qualities that can promote enhanced feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. According to Garber, runners seem to be happier and more confident, not only due to their improved physical condition, but also due to the feelings of accomplishment, pride and confidence in their abilities as athletes.
Improved Mental Health
The biochemical benefits of running on mental health do not stem just from the release of endorphins. Running also promotes the production of neurotransmitters — important brain chemicals related to mental health — including serotonin and dopamine. Certain mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are believed to occur, in part, due to deficiencies of these neurotransmitters. According to personal trainer Matt Roberts in a 2011 interview with “The Telegraph,” running causes specific chemical changes in the brain that help to improve your mood. Running can help take your mind off your worries, which may help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Running also promotes an increased intake of oxygen, which can help you to feel more alert, focused and less sluggish.
Some research suggests that running and other moderately intense forms of exercise may result in significant cognitive benefits. A clinical review published in the September 2007 issue of “Trends in Neurosciences” reports that exercise results in structural changes to the hippocampus, providing benefits such as improved learning and memory, protection from neurodegeneration and alleviation of depression, especially in elderly populations. An indirect benefit of running on cognition is that it can help to prevent physical disorders such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which can contribute to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration.