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Are Runners Indeed Smarter? How Running Impacts the Brain

Are Runners Smarter?

Running is one of the top exercises in the world, benefitting your body and mind alike. Are runners actually smarter than other people, though? It turns out that the physiological effects of running can alter your brain’s activity and improve certain aspects of your intelligence. Here’s what happens in the brain while running and how you can reap the benefits.

1.   It Changes the Brain’s Chemical Messengers

The “runner’s high” that many people describe isn’t a placebo effect. Studies have shown that this strange phenomenon comes from changes in the brain’s chemical messengers. One such study from 2008 used neuroimaging to show that a two-hour run caused enhanced opioid binding across the brain, leading to a feeling of euphoria.

Other biologists have also pointed out changes in neurotransmitter activity in subjects running on treadmills. These findings support the anecdotal evidence that people get a sudden wave of positive emotions at some point while running. No one knows the exact distance and intensity required to trigger this reaction, but the effect seems to be most prevalent in long-distance running compared to shorter intervals.

2.   It Improves Your Mood

Besides giving you a temporary mood boost, running can also improve your overall outlook. Running is one of the best mental health treatments available, combatting common ailments like depression and anxiety and increasing confidence and self-esteem. These feelings lead to a clearer thought process and better problem-solving skills. 

Running isn’t a direct pipeline to heightened intelligence, but its positive effects on your emotional and mental states can contribute to improvements. People with high confidence and low stress also tend to have greater motivation and resiliency, which are necessary for improving cognitive abilities.

3.   It Contributes to Better Sleep

People with active lifestyles — including runners — tend to sleep longer and better than those with sedentary lifestyles. A good night’s sleep leads to stronger mental performance the next day. Better sleep also balances energy levels, strengthens immune systems and improves memories.

A healthy body, stable energy levels and a reliable memory all enable the brain to work at its full capacity, so running helps unlock your physical and mental potential. Good sleep is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.

4.   It Boosts Academic Performance

Many studies have established that student-athletes perform better academically and socially than their non-athlete counterparts, which shouldn’t be that surprising. The frequent interactions with peers have something to do with it, but exercise is the most influential factor. An intense activity like running stimulates the brain’s frontal executive function— the area responsible for concentration, planning and problem-solving.

A daily routine balanced with rigorous exercise and challenging academics is the recipe for a healthy, fully functional brain. Students with conditions like ADHD benefit the most from the physiological effects of running, as they can block out distractions and focus on their studies more easily.

5.   It Improves Vascular System Functions

It’s common knowledge that running is an effective cardiovascular exercise, but most people only associate the physiological effects of running with the heart. Cardio is also crucial for mental states, as the brain needs a strong and steady blood flow to function as intended. A stimulated vascular system directly leads to a more stimulated brain.

Cardio becomes more important as we age and susceptible to chronic problems like high blood pressure and varicose veins. These conditions restrict blood flow to the brain and lead to poorer mental performance, so you must train your vascular system throughout your life to maintain a healthy, happy mind.

6.   It Helps Prevent Late-Onset Mental Conditions

Running can also help prevent late-onset mental conditions as we get older. One study found that six months of regular training improved cognitive processes and verbal fluency among 66-year-old test subjects. Older adults with structured exercise routines also retain more gray matter than their inactive counterparts and thus have better memories.

Scientists have also confirmed that running accelerates brain cell growth through a process called neurogenesis. A daily running routine can help older people’s brains stay healthy and sharp by instigating more frequent neurogenesis.

7.   It Changes Your Brain’s Wiring

Accelerated neurogenesis is a clear indicator that running changes the brain structure. However, the physiological effects of running can be even more extreme in some cases. After enough time and experience, running can change some fundamental aspects of your brain’s wiring.

Researchers with Frontiers in Human Neuroscience sought to find exactly what happens in the brain while running, so they did a brain scan of competitive distance runners. The scans found greater connectivity between the frontal-parietal network and other regions of the brain responsible for memory and self-control. They concluded that this change was the brain’s natural adaptation to the runners’ high cognitive and aerobic demands.

In the same study,  the runners also showed an anti-correlation between their default mode networks (DMN) and the brain’s motor control regions. This finding suggests that enough distance running leads to extreme cognitive engagement and DMN suppression during the activity.

In layman’s terms, distance running can make you a temporary genius with laser focus. This phenomenon would partly explain how professional runners manage to push through the physical pain of marathons and similar events. When their bodies start to fail, their minds pick up the slack.

8.   It Changes Our Sensitivity to Pain

Pain is one of the main reasons people avoid running. The blisters, chafing, cramps and other ailments make it an unattractive activity. However, one study has found that distance runners forget the pain of intense exercise more quickly than the average person. 

This finding is ironic considering that running improves your overall memory and learning skills, but it perfectly correlates with the athlete’s thought process. All athletes feel great satisfaction and confidence after completing a difficult workout. The positive feelings help them forget the physical pain, accelerate their mental recovery and prepare them for the next session. This experience seems to be more intense for distance runners than other athletes.

Running Is Medicine for the Brain

The numerous physiological effects of running can improve your mood, memory, essential brain functions and cognitive abilities. It’s a natural medicine for the brain and the rest of your body, too. Now that you understand what happens in your head while running, you should feel more motivated than ever to pick up the habit and change your life for the better.

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