Talk to dedicated runners about why they pull on their sneakers and you'll get answers that go well beyond the fitness benefits inherent in any sort of exercise. Running helps clear the mind, spur ideas, and even makes people better leaders, devotees will tell you.
If you're more horrified than exhilarated by the prospect of spending long hours putting one foot in front of the other, these responses can be baffling. Are runners' brains just addled by all that time on the road? Can an activity that novices often experience as boring at best or agonizing at worst really have such psychological benefits?
Science, it turns out is on the side of the runners. A heap of research is beginning to pile up showing that running changes the brain, significantly affecting how the minds of runners function.
The British Psychological Society Research Digest blog recently recapped these new studies in a fascinating post. Some bits, like the effects of extreme long-distance running on the brain (it temporarily shrinks it, apparently) will only be of interest to a specialized audience, but others, like the studies below, are fascinating for anyone who loves running (or who has been puzzled by those who claim to love running).
1. Sprints boost self-control (and learning).
Intense sprints can be brutal, but the payoff is greater than just enhanced speed or tougher lungs. One study found that after participants completed ten minutes of short, periodic sprints, "performance on the Stroop Test -- a long-established measure of mental control, or what psychologists call 'executive function' -- seemed to be enhanced immediately... and 45 minutes afterwards."
This suggests sprints might be an effective way to enhance self-control, decision-making, and willpower, at least in the short term. And another study showed an additional potential benefit of sprints. When subjects were tested on their ability to memorize made-up words, those who had just completed a pair of short-but-intense sprints "were able to learn 20 percent faster... compared with the other conditions, and they showed superior memory retention when tested again a week later."
2. Running makes you more mentally agile.
Another study asked a group of physically fit sailors to engage in interval running (you go fast, then slower to rest, then fast again, etc.) for a period of seven weeks. Compared to a control group that stayed active in different ways, the runners "showed superior gains in their cognitive flexibility," reports BPS.
3. Running really does quiet the mind.
Many experienced runners claim that running "clears the mind." This isn't self-help voodoo. "A study published last year in Experimental Brain Research appeared to provide some partial scientific support for this idea," notes BPS, explaining that brain scans of experienced long-distance runners revealed running really does seem to reduce activity in certain key brain areas.
4. Running literally helps you grow new brain cells.
For a long time scientists believed you were stuck with the brain you ended up with as an adult, but startling new research has shown that we continue to grow new brain cells throughout life. Running seems to speed this process (in mice at least), though research is ongoing to explore the phenomenon further.
5. Running helps you deal with stress.
Another common claim of runners is that their hobby is a great stress-reducer. This belief too is backed by science. Even a short 30-minute jog has been shown to help people process negative emotions. The effect was particularly strong among those who reported that they struggle to handle their negative feelings.