UNDERSTANDING THE BRAIN BENEFITS OF THE ‘RUNNER’S HIGH’
Written by Sarah Braithwaite, a WellBe&Co Neuroscience-based Life & Health Coach
We have all had that same message drummed into our heads since we were young – ‘eat plenty vegetables, exercise often and get enough sleep’ , and while we are all familiar with the physical benefits these have on our body, most are not aware of the incredible impacts had on our brains – particularly when it comes to exercise. Our brain and body is intrinsically connected and while neurology is flowing downwards, physiology is flowing upwards and to separate the dual effects on one another would be impossible.
The love-hate relationship of endurance running is real – time, commitment, pain, and pressure, versus that insane ‘runners high’ that keeps us coming back for more and more. Let us unpack the latest science on brain health in relation to exercise – after all knowledge is power, and these juicy facts may give you a whole new appreciation for those long arduous training sessions.
How exercise actually rewires your brain
More than a mood boost
The latest buzz word in the neuroscience world, ‘neuroplasticity’, means our brains are able to change and rewire depending on many factors, one being physical movement. Beside the mental health benefits of reducing anxiety and depression, regular physical exercise is actually rewiring your brain for better cognitive function as well as improvement of emotional regulation. Exercise also allows the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, from the body which is hugely beneficial and explains why we experience mood changes after a workout.
It’s all biochemistry
During exercise, the body begins to produce endorphins which are our ‘feel good’ hormones. The effects of these endorphins plus the release of important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, means that you are getting all the right kinds of ‘highs’ while you are running. Dopamine affects the reward pathways in the brain while serotonin stabilizes our moods – both are essential to mental health and well-being. While physical exercise is best, studies have also shown the mind boggling benefits to the brain from simply visualising a detailed exercise session in your head – what better evidence to prove the brain’s role in physical movement?
4 Ways to maximize your training for better brain health
Okay so now that we have indisputable evidence of just how great movement is for our minds, here are a few easily implementable training hacks to help you get the most out of it:
Incorporate HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
HIIT-style training has been shown to help prompt new cellular growth in the brain as well as increasing activity between neurons and prompting neuroplasticity.
Regular exercise improves memory function in the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning, and studies have shown that exercise improves these functions and causes neurogenesis (new cellular growth).
Sweat out the stress
Use exercise as a stress release tool to rid your body of excessive levels of toxic cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that we produce, and it can become toxic when chronic. Stress can quite literally cause the physical release of cortisol.
Combine exercise with some mindful or visualisation practices to encourage neuroplasticity. The mind battles to distinguish reality from imagination, and the power of visualization is helpful in ingraining those neural pathways that are used when performing the activity.
Eat the right brain food
The brain thrives off of slow release carbohydrates as well as healthy fats. Dr Tara Swart, a remound Neuroscientist, recommends food such as: eggs, nuts, avos, coconut oil and salmon. Other foods such as sweet potatoes and healthy grains can also be beneficial.
Movement for the mind
Regular exercise, like running, really has profound benefits for both the brain and body, and that ‘high’ is there as a reminder to keep coming back for more. And with that in mind, I’m putting on my trainers and hitting the road…