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Benefits of Running Explained by Neuroscientists

Photo by SBS

Some people choose to run not because they need the exercise but because they enjoy the chemical changes that take place in their brain. Some runners even crave a euphoria that kicks in mid-run. Most often referred to as the ‘Runners High’ this euphoria is a feeling of mindfulness and reduced anxiety and feeling of pain. Neuroscientists have recently conducted experiments to determine if this feeling is a delusion or not, and if it’s real when and why it starts. Is it possible that exercise can induce biochemical effects in our brain that can cause a mild hallucination?

Researchers in Germany have been trying to find a correlation between running and our bodies release of endorphins. “Running does elicit the flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runner’s body pumps out, the greater the effect.” The subjects in the study took a pill that releases a chemical that highlights where the endorphins are in the brain during a Positron Emissions Tomography (PET) scan. Before running the patients took a standard psychological test in order to assess their mood. After running for two hours the patients took another PET scan and mood test. Dr. Henning Boecker from the University of Bonn was the lead researcher of the study. He said that 10 of the patients were told they were investigating opioid reactors in the brain and the rest were told nothing. However, that’s not what was being studied. Dr. Boecker and his colleagues were studying the release of endorphins during a run. Researchers were looking to see which part of the brain the endorphins were attaching to. The study showed that endorphins were produced in high quantities while running and that they were attaching to the limbic and prefrontal areas of the brain, the area associated with emotion. This study broke new ground proving that it is possible to measure a ‘runner’s high’ by the endorphins being produced from running.

Is it possible that running can also cause other reactions to occur in our brain? The short answer is yes. Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, has reviewed neuroscience and it’s findings for three decades. She believes there is a strong link between exercise and cognitive clarity. Postal says after about 40 minutes of vigorous exercise new brain cells “pop up” in the hippocampus region of our brains. Exercise can induce the growth of new brain cells that help improve our memory and aid in our ability to learn because of the area in our brains that this process occurs. Vigorous exercise, such as a long trail run, can also increase blood flow to our brain’s frontal lobe. This rush can improve clarity and our thought process; helping us to better plan ahead, focus, concentrate, and manage our timeframe. Exercise is not only beneficial to our bodies physically but also mentally.

It turns out that running is good for our bodies and mind but what about our inner being? Being mindful and aware of our surroundings is something we know nourishes our soul. Is it possible that while on the course of a long run we benefit from the way that our mind peacefully drifts off as we continue to run further? Neuroscientists have yet to run an experiment to determine if daydreaming and getting lost in our own thoughts while running is a beneficial factor to our mental health. Three psychologists collaborated their findings of neuroscience in a journal, Frontiers in Psychology, and here is what they had to say about this unknown state of being while running “We mind wander, by choice or by accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful.” Even though this act of mindlessness has yet to be measured it is still a valuable component of overall health.

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