Written by Charlie Alf of Backpackhack.com
Ever feel like, as you run, your mind is as one fire as your legs and as expansive as your breathing?
That is because running does more than just exercise your cardiovascular system. New research has shown that, aside from physical conditioning, long distance running will also boost brainpower.
If you ever needed another reason to keep lacing up those sneakers and going for a run, now you can say running does the mind good too.
About the Study
Though the study is a bit more than a year old now, it is still hugely popular evidence for how amazing running is for the human body.
The research was originally carried out by the Department of Psychology and the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland then published in the Journal of Physiology in 2016.
To avoid all of the neuroscience-based abbreviations and complicated jargon, the basic overview of the research is this: the researchers set out to find out how an aerobic exercise, such as running, could have a positive influence on brain functioning and structure.
A particularly interesting focus of the research to look at “adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN) and learning.”
Now, most of us are taught that as we age, our neurocognitive functioning decreases due to brain cells aging and dying. For decades, it was thought that this is perfectly normal, but more and more research is proving that exercise keeps the brain young.
The more you move, the more youthful you remain.
The Finnish researchers of the study did not use people as their subjects but rats.
You might be thinking that rats do not equal humans and that measuring physical and mental growth in a rodent is not comparable to homo sapiens. Actually, rats are physiologically very close to humans.
Results are often very close in rat and human testing.
There were two groups of rats, the high-response trainer (HRT) group and the low-response trainer (LRT) group.
HRT and LRT refer to how the rats respond to aerobic exercise training. Though both groups have the physical capacity to complete exercise and no lack in motivation, HRT rats gain the optimal positive results from exercise (genetically gifted) while LRT rats are like most people—slightly less ambitious and struggle for a while to see any result.
HRT rats love working out. LRT rats would rather eat pizza and chill on the couch.
Within those two groups, there were four divisions: sedentary rats, control rats, running rats, high-intensity interval training rats.
Control rats had no special treatment and were tested at the beginning for aerobic capacity and at the end. Sedentary rats did nothing throughout the 7 weeks and never left home.
The runner rats had active running wheels. HIIT rats ran on a treadmill 3 times a week.
After the 7 weeks of testing, the researchers found that aerobic exercise enhanced the adult hippocampal neurogenesis factor of the HRT rodents. In other words, the rats that enjoyed working out and running saw the greatest response to the exercise.
But the LRT rats also benefited from exercise—mainly when they were forced to do it, on the treadmill.
Heikki Kainulainen (2016b.), the lead professor and researcher, stated:
The results indicate that the highest number of new hippocampal neurons was observed in rats than ran long distances… Compared to sedentary animals, HRT rats than ran voluntarily on a running wheel had 2-3 times more new hippocampal neurons at the end of the experiment.
Either way, endurance running increased the AHN of the rodents more than resistance training.
The Human Factor
You are probably thinking, “How does this apply to me? I’m no rat.”
Well, everyone should be interested in having a healthy hippocampus, because that is the region of the brain responsible for learning.
See, as we get older, those pesky problems like memory loss, both short and long term, are “normal.” However, when too much of the hippocampus deteriorates, even performing simple tasks like balancing the checkbook, remembering to pay bills on time, or taking Fido out for a walk become harder to accomplish.
When those changes become too drastic, you might even forget how to button a shirt, drive, or use the bathroom.
Running can save you from a reduced quality of life in the future by promoting regrowth of hippocampal neurons. Suddenly, memory loss no longer has to be a thing, especially if you work out your brain from time-to-time.
Though the energetic HRT rats loved to run every single day for hours on their little wheels, does that mean you have to do the same to reap those benefits? Probably not.
After all, the rats that did high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on the treadmill 3 times a week also saw advantages from their aerobic workout.
In other words, as long as you are off the couch and moving, you are going to receive benefits. If you run long distance or even walk/jog, you are still going to keep your brain younger than if you maintained a sedentary lifestyle.
Time to get rolling, couch potatoes!
Even if you never want to run a marathon in your life, you should be running to protect your brainpower.
Research has proven that with aerobic exercise, you can rejuvenate the hippocampus, protecting your memory and learning power. Will you go the distance to protect your mind and stay younger longer?