Running & The Brain: The Neuroscience of Running
“… our brains are resilient and ever-changing, and despite physical injuries or the negative, cumulative effects of stress and trauma on our brains, they can heal from the inside out.”
I laced up my shoes and hit the ground, running. Breathing in deeply and exhaling in sync with the pounding of my feet on the pavement, my body feels like a symbiotic machine. This conflicts with the disarray and swirling thoughts of my anxious and depressed mind. Time passes. I keep running. My mind begins to quiet. All I hear is my breathing, my footsteps on the ground and a breeze passing through the trees.
I know running helps manage my depression and anxiety. That’s based off how I feel after I run. But what exactly is behind exercise and its effects on the brain? This article explores the evidence-backed brain science behind exercise, running and its impact on our overall mental well-being.
The Brain & Neuroplasticity
Oxford Languages defines neuroplasticity as “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury”. In other words, our brains are resilient and ever-changing. Despite physical injuries or the negative, cumulative effects of stress and trauma on our brains, they can heal from the inside out. For the traumatized, depressed, or anxious brains, this is an incredibly important discovery in the field of neuroscience.
Review research by Zhao, Jiang, Wang, Cai, Liu, & Liu (2020) indicates there are no comprehensive conclusions about exercising and its effect on specific structural brain changes for individuals with depression. However, studies show that exercise helps ameliorate symptoms of depression with “comparable efficiency” (p. 886) when compared to the effectiveness of both medications and other interventions, such as psychotherapy.
Exercise & Mental Health
Evidence is growing as researchers explore how various exercises have different effects on mental health disorders. This includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Though more research must be done, some studies show that aerobic exercise helps. Any physical activity that gets your blood pumping faster and requiring more oxygen, such as running or cycling, is often equal to or even more highly effective than traditional psychotropic medications in treating depressive symptoms (Zhao et al., 2020). Long-term exercise, especially at moderate to higher levels of intensity, seem to be more effective at lessening symptoms of depression (Zhao et al., 2020). In other words, the more you get out and run, and the more you challenge yourself, research supports that your depressive symptoms can decrease over time.
How Running Changes Your Brain Chemistry
Through animal studies, researchers have a glimpse into possible explanations and connections between brain structure, brain chemistry, and mental health-related issues. Over time, physical exercise can provide different therapeutic effects including treating mental health disorders (Lin & Kuo, 2013).
Researchers studying rats discovered that exercise improved functioning in parts of the brain related to memory, learning, decision-making, and planning — the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, respectively. This sometimes referred to as “running-induced plasticity” (Vivar & van Praag, 2017, p. 411). Running also increases the number of new neurons developing in brains. And it helps neurotransmitters (or brain chemicals) function and communicate with one another (Vivar & van Praag, 2017). Exercising also releases different neurotransmitters, or “happy brain chemicals” including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, all necessary for mental and physical well-being (Lin & Kuo, 2013).
Exercising changes our brain chemistry, making us less susceptible to the negative impacts of chronic stress and mental health issues. Running, or really, any form of medium to higher-impact exercises performed over a long period of time are crucial not just for our physical well-being, but our mental health as well. So, the next time you’re trying to motivate and convince yourself to get out and get moving, remember that your brain and your body will thank you with a nice spurt of those “happy brain chemicals” as a nice reward!
Lin, T-Z., & Kuo, Y-M. (2013). Exercise benefits brain function: The monoamine connection. Brain Sciences, 3(1), 39-53.
Vivar, C., & van Praag, Henriette. (2017). Running changes the brain: The long and the short of it. Physiology, 32(6), 410-424.
Zhao, J-L., Jiang, W-T., Wang, X., Cai, Z-D., Liu, Z-H., & Liu, G-R. (2020). Exercise, brain plasticity, and depression. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 26, 885-895. doi: 10.111/cns.13385