Have you ever watched the famous American political drama series called House of Cards where the two protagonists, Claire and Frank Underwood, are absorbed in a dangerous and deceptive political warfare? If the answer is positive, you too must have noticed that whenever they feel defeated and down, they simply get out and run; and, the next thing you see, they are all fired-up and re-energized for the battle.
No matter how deceitful their agenda might seem, you just couldn't help appreciating their energy and effort. As it happens, I have recently finished watching the last season of the show and this particular stress-relieving technique got me thinking.
Exercise is good for us, we all know that. But how exactly an aerobic exercise like running can help you relieve stress and get smarter? So, I dug a little deeper and the results are astonishing.
According to a New York Times report about a research on Cell Metabolism, ¨long-term endurance exercise such as running can alter muscles in ways that then jump-start changes in the brain, helping to fortify learning and memory.¨
A number of other studies and experiments by researchers and medical professionals suggest a strong link between aerobic exercises and brain health.
The Cell Metabolism research was done by American National Institutes of Health (NIH). They separated muscle cells from mice, put them in several petri dishes and created a simulated workout condition so that the cells thought they were running.
Under such quasi-workout condition, the researchers analyzed the changes in the cells by using a technique called mass spectrometry. After much analysis of the chemical substances produced during the process, they narrowed their observation down to a certain type of protein–cathepsin B.
To ascertain whether cathepsin B might actually be a contributing element to brain health, they added a little protein to living neurons in other petri dishes. Later, they found out that cathepsin B induces a process in the neurons called neurogenesis–the birth of neurons in the brain cells.
These findings by NIH was further supported by experiments done by fellow researchers in Germany. In these experiments, mice, rhesus monkeys, and young men and women were engaged in vigorous aerobic exercises–mainly running and jogging–for a certain period of time. Merely halfway into the experiments, every participant showed remarkable progress in memory and cognitive abilities. Surprisingly, they had one thing in common–abundant cathepsin B in their bloodstream.
In a different study carried out at University of Granada in Spain has found out that people who do regular aerobic workouts are more likely to sustain attention in their day to day activities. This study was done on 22 triathletes who had fairly high aerobic fitness and 20 people who do not.
They were asked to sit in front of a black screen for 1 hour straight and response as soon as they detect full red circles on it. The task was reasonably unexciting and the circles appeared on irregular intervals. During the test which was divided into 12-minute segments, the triathletes showed more brain activity than the rest.
The researchers concluded that the results “demonstrated a positive association between aerobic fitness, sustained attention and response preparation.”
There are more to it. Running makes us better and improves our attention. Here are such 5 mind-blowing ways running benefits our brain health.
01. Improved capacity to absorb information
When you run a brain molecule called FNDC5 and its by-product irisin migrate from your bloodstream to your brain. This migration contributes to the enhancement of your memory and learning abilities.
Irisin also causes brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF which in turn triggers neurogenesis. The higher the level of BDNF in your brain, the more you become capable of absorbing information.
Furthermore, Dr, Bruce Spiegelman, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute said that irisin controls a very important neuroprotective pathway in the brain thereby protecting it from neurological illnesses.
02. Sustained and enhanced concentration power
In this new age of information, we are often bombarded with texts, ads, and unexpected intrusions and get distracted. Running can be a great solution to this attention deficiency. A study done by psychotherapist Alex Georgio on 10,000 people over the span of 15 years suggests that people who continue to do aerobic exercises eventually learns to sustain their attention for a longer period.
Add to that, running before going to a class or a meeting can help you perform better because it helps your brain to work optimally, writes Dr. John Ratey in his book Spark–The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
03. Running slows down the aging process of your brain
As we grow older, neurogenesis gradually becomes rarer in our brain and the hippocampus (the area of the brain that’s responsible for learning and memories) gets smaller.
According to a comparative research on middle-aged athletes and non-athletes, the former had greater neural plasticity and metabolic efficiency. The researchers opined that running stagnates brain's aging by refueling neurogenesis and slowing down the depletion of hippocampal area.
04. Running–a remarkable anti-depressant and stress-reliever
Given the excessive level of pressure we have to endure in today’s highly competitive world, we happen to get upset all too often. But, don't be disappointed. Running can help you.
When you run your body releases endorphins–the same chemicals human body releases when it is on drugs. So, you can have an exciting physical experience just by doing something as simple as running minus the legal hassle.
Besides, running also positively augments the function of serotonin and norepinephrine which are neurotransmitters responsible for our mood-swings. It helps you soothe your stress and reduce mental fatigue so that you can make sound judgement.
05. Boost up your creativity
Do you work in the creative field? Are you a student whose academic and extracurricular activities demand constant creativity from you? If the answer is yes, then you must have been hit by some sort of creativity or writer’s block at some point.
Such blocks can be a real drag. You feel embarrassed, your boss or the club president gets too disappointed, the walls start crumbling–yes, it’s excruciating, I know.
But, guess what? Running, like a best friend, is here to help you. The most convincing explanation of this benefit is given by Professor Keith Sawyer: if you spend time doing activities such as walking or running, your mind gets freed up or is given a break, so that when you get back to your task (i.e. making a report), you’re likely to connect ideas that didn’t seem obvious before. When you work out, your body flushes out cortisol (stress hormone) and when that happens, you enable your brain to get your creative juices flowing.
Being said all that, running regularly is hard. There are several problems, such as we are too busy for our own good, running hurts, it is hard to maintain a regular routine and so on. The truth is there is no easy solution to these problems except starting running in one morning or evening.
Getting over your initial inertia can be a real challenge but once you start and push yourself to continue you should be good. The main thing, once you started, is not speed or distance, it is maintaining regularity and running every day without taking a break.
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