Wednesday, March 2, 2011

4 Running: It's Not Just A Tool For the Mind, It's the Whole Toolkit :)


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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.


When the gears and pistons of the brain are in full swing, that's when some really cool stuff can happen. :) Possibilities open up, obstacles are removed, and new pathways of thought are suddenly made clear to us. Or, put another way, the pathways of running clear the pathways of the mind. :) And I mean this both figuratively, as in our perceptions and ideas, and literally, as in the neural pathways of our brains. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that later. First, the philosophical stuff, and then I'll get into the science of it all. :)

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? ;)

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During today's run, a rather philosophical thought popped into my brain: "With running, every step is an affirmation of life." That might sound corny or hokey, but nonetheless, it's very true. When you think about all of the stuff a person goes through in their lifetime, whether good or bad or somewhere in between, running helps to keep a person going. Every step we take says to the rest of the world, "Yes, I am actively partaking in life, and am part of this world." Running is like a best friend that's there for you, to support you in your triumphs as well as in your time of need. Whether a person is cognizant or it or not, running really does help a person through everything they go through in their life. Sure, it might not provide the answer to all of life's questions and problems, but it often gives a person the necessary perspective to "break on through to the other side."

Speaking of which, I've quite literally had many a breakthrough moment during my runs. On the trail, I've often figured out solutions to challenging or difficult problems or have come up with some new and exciting ideas (in both the business and personal spheres of my life). Often, these ideas are either philosophical or creative in nature, or revolve around people and communications, i.e., practical ideas to help people (family, friends, the running community at large, etc.). These ideas can be either concrete or abstract, quantitative or qualitative, or a combination of all of the above. It doesn't really matter much to me, as long as the ideas keep coming. :) Running also provides the necessary inspiration for my writing and other creative endeavors. I guess you could say that it frequently acts as my muse. :) MercuryNike, and Atalanta might not have gotten credit for inspiring people in the same way as the various Greek deities of the arts (Calliope, TerpsichoreEuterpeThalia, and Melpomene, etc.), but they are nonetheless the muses of many, many runners. :)

Of course, it feels great to have these running "epiphanies." Honestly, I just don't know what I'd do if I didn't have running. It not only makes the body better, it makes the mind better too. Of course, there are scientific studies backing up all of these statements. I'm not just making them up. ;) Almost everyone's heard all about the mental and physical benefits of exercise and running ad naseum by now anyhow, whether they be runners or not. ;) However, when it comes to the science of exercise, there's a lot that we're still discovering. In fact, as of late, there's been a lot of highly dynamic and pioneering research on these topics, particularly in the area of neuroscience, in terms of how exercise alters our brain chemistry. The findings are absolutely fascinating, and many of them are truly groundbreaking. 

Sure, exercise changes us physically, but recent findings provide even more conclusive evidence on exactly how tightly our mental and physical states are linked. I've always believed that the two were linked on a neurochemical level anyhow --- it's been a key axiom of mine for many years -- but of course it's always nice to see completely new, concrete scientific evidence that reinforces this premise and also deepens our understanding of this ever-evolving mind-body connection. More and more, with every new scientific discovery, we see how much of a role our body's biochemistry plays in that connection. It's the foundation upon which so much else in our lives is based.

Let's address the scientific implications of why this is so: Neural pathways dictate how information travels through the nervous system. They are the gatekeepers, deciding which neurochemicals, and how much of them, will pass through the synapses of the nervous system, which of course, includes the brain (i.e., the command and control center ;) ). By engaging in aerobic physical exercise (like running :-D ), it's possible for people to enhance and strengthen these neural pathways, and in doing so, alter their own brain chemistry in pronounced and positive ways. Sounds pretty radical, eh?! This of course is good news, but let's break that down even further: Did you know that, even in old age, that the brain is capable of growing new neurons and altering its own neural pathways and associations? It can even repair damaged neural pathways, which is particularly important as we age, since our brains start to lose nerve tissue, beginning at age 30. The good news is that aerobic exercise helps reverse this nerve tissue loss. Yes, there's hope for us aging runners yet. :)

Isn't that cool?! I really like the idea that exercise can quite literally alter the mind on a molecular level, in terms of both brain structure and function, and furthermore, has the power to do so at any stage of our lives. The implications of these findings are huge. This means that if we keep exercising both our brains and bodies that our brains will retain the ability to grow and adapt throughout our lifetimes. We have the capacity for learning new things during the entire span of our lives. We can fight the tides of rigidity and complacency that many people have previously assumed to be a natural part of aging. ;)  See, we don't have to be a stereotype in our golden years. :) Yes, I'll tell you right now that I plan to be the cheeky grey-haired one driving the Ferrari. "Where's the beef," my foot. ;)

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. :)

Conversely, studies have shown that most age-related memory loss is simply a result of mental and physical inactivity. However, the good news is that this is a factor that we can do something about. In one particular study, sedentary people significantly improved their cognitive skills (executive function, spatial tasks, reaction times, quantitative skills, etc.) after only four months of consecutive aerobic exercise. Not only that, but the brain itself then becomes better able to adapt and rewire itself to accommodate new challenges. :)

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. :)

BDNF also boosts serotonin production and related serotonergic signaling, which in turn, stimulates BDNF expression. :) Yes, that reciprocal relationship is one big loop o' happiness. ;) And exercise is the trigger. Guess that not surprising considering that studies have shown aerobic exercise directly boosts BDNF and serotonin production.  No wonder aerobic exercise is credited for its mood-enhancing properties. :)

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. :)

4 comments:

Dan Cummings - Running Realtor said...

You are a source of great information Corey... just wish it was in shorter segments so I'd digest everything you offer! :-)

Cyberpenguin said...

Thanks, Dan! Was having a bit too much fun writing this & got a little bit carried away. :)

homefitnesshealth said...

A lot of great detailed scientific information! Truly Running is one of the best, most complete exercises for improving general fitness.

Angie said...

thats a really good good thing to share. and its absolutely true thing. Running has a lot of benefits. I also do yoga. and doing this stuff with help of apps not any teacher. and m jst soo satisfied. want to share with u people.
http://www.mobilemediacity.com/portfolio/health/

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