Wednesday, March 2, 2011
4 Running: It's Not Just A Tool For the Mind, It's the Whole Toolkit :)
After I get back from a run, my head is always filled with ideas. That's something I love about running. It oils the mental mechanisms of the mind. As everyone already knows, the mental benefits of running are considerable.
There are days when I might start off my run with my head in a rather immediate or finite mental zone. Maybe I'm thinking whatever just happened five seconds ago or five hours ago, or perhaps I'm mulling over the day's work or am focusing on some of the more mundane tasks I've got to do after my run. Everybody cycles through that kind of stuff in their mind whenever it becomes necessary to do so. ;) (I don't particularly like dwelling on this sort of stuff any longer than necessary, and would rather just figure out a plan and executive it, without too much fussing over minor details. The point is to just get the boring diurnal tasks done so one can spend time on the more interesting stuff. :) The task-oriented mindset is not an eternal state of being. Play is equally as important as work, and furthermore, is actually linked to enhanced mental productivity. So there. LOL.)
And then, as I run, my mind gradually floats away from the less temporal stuff and towards the big picture stuff. As you can probably tell, I'm an "internal runner." That's my natural state of being, although for track workouts, interval training, and races I'll suddenly switch gears and become more "external," because I need to pay attention more to what's going on around me. ;) I'll admit that I love to just "space out" on the trail, which is why I'll usually gravitate towards long, continuous paths with zero traffic. This is not to say that I'm not body-aware or a complete spacezoid while running (I'm not making a habit of tripping over my face or bumping into walls just yet ;) ), but rather that I just like letting my mind wander while I run. However, it's not a futile exercise; it's part of the creative process. If I let my brain go with the flow, its natural progression will often pay huge dividends. I especially love long distance runs (i.e., 14+ miles) for this very reason. Long distance runs provide the necessary space, both literally and metaphorically speaking, for contemplation. The running mind not only dwells in the here and now, but also floats off into the territory of one's dreams and how to make them possible. The mind moves forward with the body.
Simply put, I love what running for what it does for my mind just as much as what it does for my body. In truth, I almost love it more for its mental benefits. It's one of the biggest reasons I run. I need the solace and contemplative space of running. And really, who, amongst us runners, doesn't? ;)
Aerobic exercise stimulates nerve growth, reinforces existing neural connections, and with the help of the neurotropin BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), also fosters the creation of new brain cells in the dentate gyrus (located in the hippocampus). The dentate gyrus is one of the few regions of the mature brain in which neurogenesis (i.e., the creation of new neurons) takes place, and at that, it's got a much higher rate of neurogenesis than other areas of the brain that are similarly active in this capacity. Increased neurogenesis is associated with improved spatial memory and may also play a role in preventing &/or ameliorating stress and depression. This probably explains why a lot of runners have improved memory and moods, higher levels of creativity, as well as faster reaction times to external stimuli.
But there's more: Researchers have found that aerobic physical exercise improves the flow of blood oxygen to the brain, which, in turn, increases the body's level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), i.e., the nourishing proteins that promote neuron creation and survival, and also reduces beta-amyloid plaques, the neurotoxic peptides commonly found in Alzheimer's patients that initiate the oxidation processes of harmful, brain-bound free radicals.
BDNF can generate new neurons as well as protect existing ones against damage and stress. It increases neuron production and promotes synaptic plasticity, i.e., the ability of neurons to modify the strength and efficiency of neural signal transmission across the synapses. (Synaptic plasticity allows neurons to modify their behaviors in response to neural activity.) BDNF enhances these synaptic transmissions, causing the brain’s neurons to branch out and find new pathways to connect and communicate with each other. Not surprisingly, BDNF is most active in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain -- the areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, and higher thinking. To connect the dots back to exercise, just think about it this way: If you run, you'll have elevated levels of BDNF in your body, the equivalent of RAM and OS upgrades for your brain. :)
Not coincidentally, the delivery of oxygen and glucose via the bloodstream also notably improves upon consistent aerobic exercise. Of course, oxygen and glucose are two vital components directly tied to one's neurological health: When the blood is better able to transport oxygen and glucose to the brain, this translates into improved mental focus and alertness. The body and brain becomes more efficient "processing" mechanisms. Of course, this partially explains why a person's mind is sharper after a workout. :) And now consider what happens when a runner has gotten to the stage where they've gotten incredibly fit. Not only do the pieces seem to snap into place on a physical level, but chances are that this runner is also making mental strides as well as physical ones. :) A regular runner's body is a finely tuned, well-honed machine. Yet another reason to run. :)
The body and the brain both need continual stimulation for maintenance and growth. And nowhere is this more self-evident than at the biochemical level: Neurons literally need to be "exercised." :) To quote scientist Carrolee Barlow, a thought leader in the field of neuroscience, "Running appears to 'rescue' many of these (brain) cells that would otherwise die." In other words, run for more brain cells. :)
In other words, a regular runner is not only more likely to be in a better mood than most non-exercising humans, but will probably also be more amenable to learning and better able to retain what they learn. :) So, if you want to maintain or improve your mental acuity, just keep (or start) running. :)