How Neuroscientists Explain the Mind-Clearing Magic of Running

How Neuroscientists Explain the Mind-Clearing Magic of Running

This article has been edited from an original by Melissa Dahl for nymag

It is something of a cliché among runners, how the activity never fails to clear your head. Does some creative block have you feeling stuck? Go for a run. Are you deliberating between one of two potentially life-altering decisions? Go for a run. Are you feeling mildly mad, sad, or even just vaguely meh?

Go for a run, go for a run, go for a run.

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A good run can sometimes make you feel like a brand-new person. And, in a way, that feeling may be literally true. About three decades of research in neuroscience have identified a robust link between aerobic exercise and subsequent cognitive clarity, and to many in this field the most exciting recent finding in this area is that of neurogenesis.

Not so many years ago, the brightest minds in neuroscience thought that our brains got a set amount of neurons, and that by adulthood, no new neurons would be birthed.

But this turned out not to be true.

Studies in animal models have shown that new neurons are produced in the brain throughout the lifespan, and, so far, only one activity is known to trigger the birth of those 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.”

The other fascinating thing here is where these new cells pop up: 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 improvement in memory.

“If you are exercising so that you sweat — about 30 to 40 minutes — 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 recorded in the brain’s frontal lobe, with increased activity seen in this region after people adopt a long-term habit of physical activity. This area of the brain — sometimes called the frontal executive network system — is located, obviously enough, at the very front: It’s right behind your forehead. After about 30 to 40 minutes of a vigorous aerobic workout – enough to make you sweat – studies have recorded increased blood flow to this region, which, incidentally, is associated with many of the attributes we associate with “clear thinking”: planning ahead, focus and concentration, goal-setting, time management.

But it’s this area that’s also been linked to emotion regulation, which may help explain the results of one recent study conducted by Harvard psychology professor Emily E. Bernstein. Like Postal, Bernstein is also a runner, and was curious about a pattern she saw in her own mind after a run. “I notice in myself that I just feel better when I’m active,” she said. She started to become really interested in the intervention studies that have popped up in recent years that suggest if you can get people who are having trouble with mood or anxiety to exercise, it helps.

“But why?” she wanted to know. “What is exercise actually doing?”

To find out, she did a version of a classic experiment among researchers who study emotion: She and her colleague — Richard J. McNally, also of Harvard — played a reliable tearjerker of a clip: the final scene of the 1979 film The Champ.

Before watching the film clip, some of the 80 participants were made to jog for 30 minutes; others just stretched for the same amount of time. Afterwards, all of them filled out surveys to indicate how bummed out the film had made them. Bernstein kept them busy for about 15 minutes after that, and surveyed them again about how they were feeling.

Those who’d done the 30-minute run were more likely to have recovered from the emotional gut-punch than those who’d just stretched — and, her results showed, the people who’d initially felt worse seemed to especially benefit from the run. Bernstein is currently doing a few follow-up research projects to determine exactly why this works the way it does.

There’s many other benefits that exercise brings, and the one’s affecting the brain and mind are very interesting for us indeed. Future research will no doubt bring us more knowledge, and in the meantime, why not stick your trainers on and do your own bit of research, after all, it’s clear from what we’re being told that the only things that will happen is you’ll get fitter and your mind will be clearer – what more do you want to get active?