It is commonly known that running can bring us a whole range of benefits, such as building strong bones and muscles, improving cardiovascular fitness, and helping with weight management. Now, studies have shown we can add enhanced cognitive functioning to that list as well.
Research in neuroscience has corrected a previously held notion that no new neurons are birthed in the brain by the time we reach adulthood, showing instead that they can be produced throughout the lifespan. So far, the only one activity is we know to trigger the birth of those new neurons is vigorous aerobic exercise.
Interestingly, these new cells emerge in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory. This could help explain, at least partially, why so many studies have identified a link between aerobic exercise and improvement in memory.
Other post-run changes have also been recorded in the brain’s frontal lobe, with studies recording increased blood flow to this region after about 30 to 40 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. People who adopt a long-term habit of physical activity have also shown increased activity in the frontal regions, which is associated with many of the attributes we associate with “clear thinking”: planning ahead, focus and concentration, goal-setting, time management.
The frontal lobe has also been linked to emotion regulation, which may explain why many runners feel that the exercise gives them a better sense of well-being. Indeed, a recent study by Harvard psychology professor Emily E. Bernstein found that people who jogged for 30 minutes before viewing a tearjerker movie clip recovered faster from the negative emotions the clip induced.
Another big mental benefit to gain from running, which scientists haven’t quite managed to pin down and study is the wonderful way your mind drifts here and there as the miles go by – mindlessness. Mindfulness, being focused in the here and now is a wonderful thing, as shown by an ever-growing amount of scientific evidence. Yet mindlessness, spacing out and getting lost in your own thoughts is beneficial too, especially for creative insight and problem solving.
When our minds wander, they tend to be pulled to the consideration of unresolved issues, or to the planning of future goals. This is the incubation period of creativity, asserts cognitive scientist Todd Kashdan, where ideas seem to come together on their own, giving you that eureka moment. “With mindfulness, on the other hand, you are so in the present moment with your consciousness that there’s no room for ideas to collide,” he said.
If you have had a long, challenging, and depressing day at work, put on those running shoes and go for a jog. Your body, brain, and perhaps your boss too will thank you for it. MIMS
Running improves cognitive function
10 May 2016