Any regular runner will almost certainly have noticed that the benefits of the sport extend beyond physical fitness. The runner’s high is a well-established phenomenon, and many runners have found regular sessions improve their mental state alongside the improvements to their heart and lung health.
But to go beyond the anecdotal, we spoke to neuroscientist Ben Martynoga, who has been working with running brand Saucony, about how running benefits the brain. We defy anyone to read the following without getting the urge to pound some pavements ASAP.
“There’s pretty good evidence now that it can help dissipate stress,” says Martynoga. “The research mainly comes out of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and researchers there have focused on a chemical called kynurenine which has been associated with psychological stress. Stress causes it to build up in the brain where it has a negative effect on brain function. It’s been linked to depression and other aspects of poor mental health.
“Running and aerobic exercise in general have been shown to activate an enzyme in your muscles which causes this kynurenine to break down. It destroys kynurenine, and it gradually clears it from your body and your brain, thereby clearing that cause of physical stress from your body. It quite a neat mechanism which shows the very real links between brain and body.”
“Many people who run or exercise will intuitively know this,” says Martynoga. “They feel better during or after a run. We know quite a lot about how the pain of a run can get dulled and why we find it rewarding. In particular the evidence points to the production in the brain of two different types of molecule: endocannabinoids – cannabis mimics some of the effects of endocannabinoids – and endorphins, which have a structure and a function that is a bit like opiates. It’s very clear that both these chemicals can activate reward pathways in the brain, make you feel good and kill the pain of a long, hard run. That’s not to say it’s always a wild euphoric drug-like high. It can often be much subtler, but it’s still very real.”
“This is the idea that running can be a really powerful way to help you focus, shut out distractions and get control of your attention again,” says Martynoga. “It’s what Saucony latched on to with the idea behind its White Noise collection of trainers – dealing with the background noise of everyday life. The evidence is stacking up to say that running is a powerful way to do exactly that. It’s not totally clear exactly how it achieves this effect, but good experiments have been done comparing groups of people running and not running. These involve setting them tasks that require them to control their attention, and in both old and young alike it seems to have a very clear effect – namely that you can tune into what you have to do and block out distractions.”
“You can view running as a sort of meditation on the move,” says Martynoga. “Meditation and mindfulness, as I understand it, are all about being immersed in the present moment and being focused on the sensations of the body. Running is a great way to get into exactly that state of mind. You will almost certainly be thinking about your breath. You’ll be aware of the sensations in your limbs and throughout your body. And you’re much more likely to be in the moment, thinking about your next step or the corner you’re going to turn next. It does make a lot of sense to think of it as a moving meditation and it will presumably carry some of the same benefits, in terms of clarity and peace of mind, that are claimed of meditation. Often people find running more accessible, and you get all the extra physical benefits for your heart, lungs and muscles that go with it.”
“Lots of people report having good ideas or solutions come to them when they least expect it, and that can certainly be while they’re out for a run,” says Martynoga. “That ties in with what brain scientists are showing us about how creative processes work, and in particular the idea that a lot of problem-solving is done by unconscious brain processes that go on in the background. There is this idea that the unconscious brain is better at making the unexpected associations and links that we think of as creativity.
“All the research suggests that the best way to get into that creative state of mind is for your brain to be engaged with something, but not overtaxed. I think running fits that description, because your brain is engaged with what you’re doing and where you’re going next, but you’re not overdoing it. You’re in the moment and not thinking about lots of different things necessarily. That’s not to say you’ll always have a great idea when you’re running, but it can be a way to improve your chances.”
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.