The fact that running is good for cardiovascular health is now conventional wisdom. That running is good for the brain, on the other hand? Not as much.
Yet increasingly, there’s a case to be made for running purely on the grounds that it is good for your mental health. Multiple studies have concluded that running:
- Decreases symptoms of depression
- Improves learning abilities
- Sharpens memory
- Slows cognitive decline
- Alleviates anxiety
- Improves sleep
- Increases creativity
In my own field of substance use treatment, still other studies have revealed that running can reduce drug and alcohol cravings and mitigate the brain damage from substance use.
The Link Between Running and Better Mental Health
But why is running so good for your brain? That’s the question framing the latest research into the link between running and mental health. Here’s what we now know, thanks to these recent findings:
- Runner’s brains show greater functional connectivity. Last year, University of Arizona researchers studied the MRI scans of runners’ brains and compared them with MRI scans of non-runners’ brains. The runners reportedly exhibited greater connectivity between different regions of the brain, including within the frontal cortex. (The frontal cortex governs cognitive tasks like planning and decision-making.) Strikingly, the researchers concluded that running affects the structure and function of the brain in ways similar to complex tasks like playing a musical instrument.
- Running generates new neurons in the hippocampus region of the brain. In a 2016 study of adult rats that were made to run at various intervals over a period of six weeks, researchers at the Academy of Finland observed that new neurons developed in the hippocampus region of the brain. (The hippocampus is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with motivation, emotion, learning, memory, and pleasure and reward, and plays a central role in mediating some of these higher brain functions.) Notably, too, the rats that acquired the most new neurons in their hippocampus had run the longest distances.
- Running at a young(er) age boosts neuronal activity in the hippocampus later in life. In another recent study involving rats, young rats that were made to run on treadmills went on to show more neuronal activity in their hippocampus as adults. They also exhibited better memory skills as a result. That discovery led researchers to conclude that running can build the brain’s resilience to aging-related neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.
If there were any doubts that running is “the thinking person’s sport,” as expressed in an article in The New York Times, such findings should put them to rest. At the very least, they’re one more reason to dust off those sneakers and go for a jog.
Anna Ciulla is the Clinical Director at Beach House Center for Recovery, where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.