The Mind-Clearing Magic of Running

I run as a sport, and have been since 1980.  One of the byproducts I have noticed is I always seem to get my best ideas while running.  I am happy (relieved?) to read recently that it’s not just me.  In fact, it may go a lot farther than that.

In an article on the New York magazine’s website entitled “How Neuroscientists Explain the Mind-Clearing Magic of Running”, after about three decades of research in neuroscience, there’s apparently a strong link between aerobic exercise and subsequent cognitive (learning) clarity.  Not only that,  the most exciting recent part is neurogenesisNot so many years ago, everyone thought our brains got a fixed number of neurons, and that by adulthood no new neurons would be born.  But now studies in animal models have shown that new neurons are formed in the brain throughout life, and, so far, only one activity is known to trigger the production of new neurons: vigorous aerobic exercise, said Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s the only trigger that we know about.”

Another fascinating finding is where these new cells appear: in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory.  So this could help explain, at least partially, why so many studies have identified a link between aerobic exercise and improved memory. “If you are exercising so that you sweat … new brain cells are being born,” added Postal, who herself is a runner. “And it just happens to be in that memory area.”

Other post-run changes have been seen in the brain’s frontal lobe, with increased activity in this region after people adopt a long-term program of physical activity.  This area of the brain  is located (of course) at the very front, right behind the forehead.  After about 30 to 40 minutes of a vigorous aerobic workout, studies have recorded increased blood flow to this region, which is associated with many of the characteristics of clear thinking, like planning ahead and concentration.

Other possible benefits include emotion regulation, which may help explain why I feel more optimistic after a good run.  The implication is vigorous exercise could be of great benefit to people with extreme mood swings.  Also, there is the underappreciated but essential function of simply letting your mind wander occasionally.  There’s plenty of time during a run for that!

In any event, I’m glad to learn there is a scientific basis for what I’ve long suspected25-jogger.w536.h357.2x.

To read the complete article, go to http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/04/how-neuroscientists-explain-the-mind-clearing-magic-of-running.html.  The photo comes from the website.

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