Running On the Brain

Running is known, and appreciated, for many of the wonderful health benefits it provides. From lowering cholesterol to looking better on the beach, many people enjoy and recognize the positive physical results running can bring to daily life. However, did you know that running can even help you think better as well?

That’s right! Going for a jog around the neighborhood can bring health to both body and mind.

In need of more brain power?

Trying to balance the check book, learning new things for work, and emailing while trying to remember that lasagna recipe your mother taught you? Studies show that the best thing you can do to improve brain power can be to take a lap around the block. Mice challenged by running on a treadmill show greater concentration of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and enhanced performance on the Morris Water Maze than mice who just sat around.  BDNF is a secreted protein that has been shown to play a role in neurogenesis in the hypothalamus. This process is the growth and development of nervous tissue, which included the creation of neurons. Creating neurons in this section of the brain is linked to improved learning and memory.  

Image from The Worlds of David Darling Encyclopedia of Science.

Image from The Worlds of David Darling Encyclopedia of Science.

Going for a jog also produces IGF-1, which is a protein produced by the liver that controls tissue remodeling (3). This is the process in which the liver makes renovations on tissues to improve their structure and function. One of the tissues IGF-1 remodels is nervous tissue, which includes neurons and its supporting cells. Aerobic exercise is connected with an increase in IGF-1 activity in the brain, thus improving communication and signal transduction in the brain.  In a study where rats ran on treadmills over a 2-week period, higher IGF-1 activity was seen in the exercising rats versus those that were sedentary (a.k.a. lazy) (4). 

Want to remember your younger years during your elder years?

Running is a great way to blow of some steam. In the process, it defends against long term memory loss! How? Stress inhibits the growth of new brain cells through the release of cortisol (5). This is especially relevant in early growth of children and results from (non-human) animal studies show that exercise positively affects brain development at a very young age. In one study, mice that had access to exercise equipment had better development of neural systems that have a role in memory and learning.

Furthermore, excessive cortisol levels inhibit neurotransmitters - chemical substances that carry on an impulse to a nerve or muscle fiber. A decrease in the amount of impulse transfers, in turn, weaken long-term memory capacity.  Long-term memory becomes especially important in old age, where neurodegenerative disorders begin their attack on the mind. Alzheimer’s disease is the 8th leading cause of death of people over the age of 65 (8). Diseases such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease not only cause memory loss, but also affect motor skills and weaken musculature.

Image from Alzheimer's Association.

Image from Alzheimer's Association.

Finish What You Have Started.

Many people often ask what the secret is to finishing a marathon. The truth is, it is paradoxically the simplest and hardest thing to do. You must accept the difficulty of the task in front of you, and be motivated and willing to finish it no matter what. If you can get in the mindset to finish a self-motivated run, you can reuse that mindset time and time again for other instances of self-motivation.

Have you ever forgotten something was due the next day, or about a huge task? This is a result of “repression”, which is the brain’s way of protecting itself when under great stress. Remember that stress produces cortisol, which interferes with impulse transitions and damages the brain’s ability to remember. The levels of this detrimental hormone were so great that the brain defended itself by tossing that thought altogether. If you accept the assignment and realize you can do it, the brain will never reach the point of feeling overwhelmed, and you will be able to focus successfully on the task at hand.  

Whether it’s been for a study break, a healthy routine, or a lesson on perseverance, running has always been there for me and my mind. Believe me, your brain will thank you for it.

Happy running!

Ian F. Sanchez received a B.S. in Biology from DePaul University while researching the regenerative abilities of zebrafish under Dr. Elizabeth LeClair. Recently, he has been chosen to participate in an NIH (National Institute of Health) funded PREP (Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program) at Ohio State University where he will perform research rotations and plans to apply for PhD programs. During his undergraduate years, he ran cross country and track and field at an elite level, and is currently training for the 2014 Chicago Marathon and 2015 Marathon. 



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Tornes-Aleman, I.(2010). Toward a comprehensive neurobiology of IGF-1.Developmental Neurobiology,70(5), 384-396

Glasper, E.R., Llorens-Martin, M.V., Leuner, B., Gould, E., Trejo, J.L.(2010). Blockade of insulin-like growth factor-1 has complex effects structural plasticity in the hippocampus. Hippocampus,20(6), 706-712

Ian Sample (18 January 2010). "Start running and watch your brain grow, say scientists | Science". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2014.

Hillman, C.H., Erickson, K.I., and Kramer, A.F. 2008. Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 9:58-65.

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Adlard, P. A., V. M. Perreau, V. Pop, and C. W. Cotman. 2005. Voluntary Exercise Decreases Amyloid Load in a Transgenic Model of Alzheimer's Disease. The Journal of Neuroscience. 25(17): 4217-4221.

Kohl, Z., Kandasamy, M., Winner, B., Aigner, R., Gross, C., Couillard-Despreset al.. 2007. Physical activity fails to rescue hippocampal neurogenesis deficits in the R6/2 mouse model of Huntington's disease. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 11(8):342-348.

Pang, T.Y.C., Stam, N. C., Nithianantharajah, J., Howard, M. L., and Hannan, A. J. 2006. Differential effects of voluntary physical exercise on behavioral and brain-derived neurotrophic factor expression deficits in Huntington's disease transgenic mice.Neuroscience. 141:569-584.