Running is a timeless workout with excellent cardiovascular benefits, but it also significantly impacts brain function. It alters the brain’s neurochemical activity, often leading to a powerful mood change commonly known as the “runner’s high.”
What do researchers know about this strange phenomenon? Is it real or just a placebo? Here’s the truth about the “runner’s high” and how it affects your mind in the short and long term.
The Science Behind the Runner’s High
Those who have experienced the runner’s high describe a brief but acute feeling of euphoria. This feeling isn’t a placebo effect, but a neurological state you can only unlock through intense physical exercise. It originates from sudden changes in the brain’s chemical messengers.
A 2008 study conducted by the German Research Network on Neuropathic Pain found compelling evidence that running for two hours caused enhanced opioid binding across the brain. This extreme case of binding observed through advanced neuroimaging is responsible for the euphoric feeling. In other words, the runner’s high is similar to a drug high.
Other studies have also shown the brain releases more endorphins during intense exercise. Endorphins are the “happy” chemicals that dull stress responses and trigger positive emotions. From this perspective, the runner’s high might be the brain’s automated coping mechanism for enduring strenuous physical activity.
Scientists still don’t know the exact running time and intensity that activates these intense neurochemical reactions. However, it’s safe to say long-distance running has more potent effects than short-distance running. Aside from causing a fleeting state of euphoria, running also has many long-term effects on the mind.
It Improves Your Overall Mental Health
Exercise is one of the best mental health treatments available. Walking, running, weight training and any other workout routine reduces your anxiety and boosts your mood. The increased blood circulation to your brain causes temporary satisfaction, but it also leads to long-term mood changes.
As the old saying goes, a healthy body is a healthy mind. Running will improve your physical strength, flexibility and immune responses. It will also keep you at a reasonable body weight, which prevents brain damage caused by obesity. Running can be an extremely valuable long-term commitment for your mental health.
You can also add sunlight and nature to the mix to enhance the positive benefits of running. Daily sunlight exposure combats the common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and releases the calming chemical serotonin in the brain.
It Helps You Sleep
If you struggle with your sleep schedule, sleeping pills and white noise machines aren’t the solutions. Running can be the ultimate elixir for your sleep habits. Runners and other frequent exercisers get more prolonged and deeper sleep than those who are sedentary. Physical activity keeps your circadian rhythms in line and helps you fall asleep around the same times every day.
Sleep is also much simpler when you have a healthy body composition. Running prevents obesity and thus decreases the risk of insomnia and sleep apnea. These nighttime ailments are more prevalent among obese individuals because of bodily inflammation and low insulin sensitivity.
Running also raises your body temperature and keeps you awake during the day. Once your body temperature drops 30–90 minutes after exercise, drowsiness tends to follow. In other words, sleep is your body’s natural biological response to exercise.
It Boosts Your Cognitive Abilities
Student-athletes tend to have more academic and social success than their non-athlete counterparts, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Their high activity levels stimulate the brain’s frontal executive function and thus improve their concentration, planning and problem-solving skills.
A daily routine that includes rigorous exercise and thought-provoking activities is the recipe for a healthy, fully functional brain. Running helps you block out distractions and focus on your work or academic responsibilities studies more efficiently. Cognitive improvement requires an equal balance of physical and mental stimulation.
It Prevents Age-Related Mental Illnesses
Running can also help prevent late-onset mental illnesses as you age. Researchers from the University of Calgary found six months of consistent exercise improved cognitive functions and verbal fluency among 66-year-old test subjects. They could read, write, speak and solve complex problems better than the non-running subject group.
Older adults who stay active also retain more gray matter than people who are inactive, which keeps their memories intact and prevents dementia from developing. A daily running routine can help you stay mentally sound and independent when you reach old age.
Running Is Therapy for the Mind
The runner’s high is the most intense neurochemical reaction to running, but it’s only the beginning. Running can also improve your mood, memory, sleep habits and cognitive function. It’s a natural therapeutic activity for the mind. Now that you know the full benefits of running, you should feel more inspired than ever before. Start running today and change your life forever.