Running and the Brain

AJW's TaproomIn the past decade or so, there have been significant advances in neuroscience thanks in large part to technological innovations that have allowed researchers to analyze the brain in ways that were previously impossible. These advances, in turn, have spawned an entirely new field of brain research which has inspired studies on all manner of ways in which certain activities and behaviors promote brain development as well as a variety of mental and psychological improvements.

In his 2013 book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, presents a mountain of research on the tremendous benefit physical exercise has on the brain. I had been meaning to read Spark for several years and finally had a chance to do it this past week, and what a book it is!

Among the several key takeaways are that exercise helps you use energy more efficiently by triggering the production of more receptors for insulin which facilities more efficient use of blood glucose and the growth of stronger brain cells. My daily run changes me at the cellular level. That finding alone seems to be motivation enough to get out the door. On top of that, Ratey provides research to support the notion that regular exercise makes us more calm, focused, and even more socially adaptable. Additionally, Ratey notes, exercise alleviates anxiety and allows us to make better decisions. With all these amazing brain benefits, why would anyone not exercise?

Of course, we as long-distance runners have probably known all along that something is going on in our brain when we run, but I find it affirming to have scientific support of what we’ve long believed to be true.

When it comes to the kinds of exercise we should practice regularly to maximize brain function, Ratey observes that studies prove that a balanced combination of aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises seem to be the key as variety tends stimulate different parts of the brain and triggers different stress and recovery reactions in the brain. I would guess that many of us, myself included, devote more than ample time to aerobic exercise but fall short in the other areas. So, if we need yet another reminder to cross train, Spark provides it.

Personally, I find it reassuring to know that something that is so much a part of who I am continues to have an impact on more than just my body. While there is something so observable and empirical about the physical benefits of running, the other benefits are more elusive. As a result, at times I find it difficult explaining to others why running is so important to me. And I suppose that is why I liked Spark so much. In addition to providing me with solid data to support my running habit, it also gave me another set of talking points the next time I get asked “why?”

Bottoms Up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Hi-Wire Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina. Known for their variety of creatively hopped IPAs, Hi-Wire’s Hi-Pitch Mosaic IPA is particularly unique. Dry hopped with Mosaic and Centennial hops, Hi-Pitch is a truly full-bodied IPA. Simultaneously bitter and fruity, Hi-Pitch is one of the most unique IPAs I have ever had.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What does running and other forms of exercise do for your brain?
  • Can you feel its effects on the way you think and behave?

There are 4 comments

  1. Henry Bickerstaff

    Ratey notes, exercise alleviates anxiety and allows us to make better decisions. If this were true why is it when we have bad runs we sign up for races to get us out of the slump and likewise when we have good runs we sign up for races because we want to keep is going?

    I do wonder if as much “as balanced combination of aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility exercises seem to be the key” if outside, treadmill or indoor track also tend to stimulate different parts of the brain and triggers different stress and recovery reactions in the brain. Is it the different types of exercise and / or the different environments that trigger the different brain reactions?

    1. John Vanderpot

      There’s a book by a British academic who runs up to the marathon, a barefoot guy, read it a couple years back (it didn’t get quite as much attention as Born to Run, which seems to have inspired it), his previous book was like a study of Gilgamesh or something (so most of us probably missed it?), and he takes a look down that road, and yes, evidently there is research that shows the environment absolutely is a factor, even just seeing pictures of nature can help trigger a positive reaction, our eyes can register more shades of green than any other color, my recollection is that for all our evolution and technology and innovation, our hard-wiring goes all the way back to the cave…

  2. JonE.

    Great to have support of the academics!

    Also consider this – Professors at University of Central Florida teach a course about music’s impact on the brain – (“…how music impacts brain function and human behavior, including by reducing stress, pain and symptoms of depression as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning and neurogenesis, which is the brain’s ability to produce neurons”.)

    I listen to music when I run (many do) – Best of both worlds!!

  3. Suresh

    All I know is that at the beginning of a long race or training run there are hundreds of thoughts colliding in my brain. Closer to the end of the run, my brain distills it to just one thought: how the heck am I getting to the finish line/ where do I park my car?

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