This is your brain on running

In case I was too subtle with the title, this blog post is about running. I have to state up front that I have a love-hate relationship with running. I love the way I feel after a good run, that sense of empowerment. At the same time though, running is, objectively speaking, a lot of work. Amidst a hectic life, extra work sometimes feels like the last thing I want to do, but that is precisely why I should do it.


Humans expressing their natural tendencies

To understand how something works, its often useful to think about where it came from. That is certainly true for our bodies, as I often find insight from an evolutionary perspective. Watch this video for a lovely David Attenborouogh-narrated illustration of what life would have been like for early humans before technology was on the scene. Back then, the thing that separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom was our ability to run for really long periods of time. As the video illustrates, we were not faster than our prey, but we could chase them down until they died of exhaustion. I particularly like the emphasis on the physical and psychological adaptations our species has to promote our ability to run marathons. Just think, before we were uniquely smart, we were uniquely too stubborn to stop running. 

As I write this, I'm sitting on a cushy chair indoors with AC, drinking tea made with electrically boiled water. I'm not lost on the irony that our lives look nothing like the depiction in that video. But that is precisely my point. Evolution operates extremely slowly, so despite our modern environment, our bodies in many ways are still designed for chasing gazelle to death on the African Savannah. This means that to the extent our lives don't resemble our African ancestors, we are figurative fish out of water, living outside of our evolutionary context. In many ways, this is good, as our species starvation and death rates are at some of the lowest in history. On the flip side however, this does have consequences for our bodies, and our brain is no exception. 

Main Points


Our bodies were shaped by evolution to run

Returning to our evolutionary context by regularly running is very important for optimal brain and body health

It almost doesn't matter what the disorder is, regular aerobic physical activity seems to improve it. One very comprehensive study found that overall mortality risk decreases by 20-50% if people regularly worked out 1. The same is true of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, 2 and ADHD as well 3. Physical activity even seems to slow the aging of our brain, helping us stay resilient to dementia 4. By regularly running, we seem to be returning our body back to its ancestral roots and promoting its ideal functioning. I'm not saying that running has to be a part of every medical plan, but optimal wellness might not be achieved without it. 

So what is it about running that makes it so necessary for us? Well, that is where the science comes in and there are still some outstanding questions. Maybe its because running increases oxygen flow to the brain 5. Maybe its because running promotes the release of growth factors for your brain 6. Maybe its simply because running is objectively work and our bodies were designed through evolution to be challenged. Whatever the reason, returning our bodies back to their evolutionary context by regularly running is deeply therapeutic for our brains. So next time running, cycling or even walking feels like too much effort, remember that could be precisely the thing your body needs to boost its health. 

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Ty the NeuroGuy

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...about exercise and brain growth factors

...about how even walking is good for MS


Inspired By...

So I thought I was brilliant with some of these ideas, but like any good thought, someone else already had it. I have been told that Born to Run by Chris McDougall goes through these ideas in much more depth, so its a great place for some follow up reading. 

1. Nocon, M., Hiemann, T., Müller-Riemenschneider, F., Thalau, F., Roll, S., & Willich, S. N. (2008). Association of physical activity with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation15(3), 239-246.

2. Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health psychology review9(3), 366-378.

3. Cerrillo‐Urbina, A. J., García‐Hermoso, A., Sánchez‐López, M., Pardo‐Guijarro, M. J., Santos Gómez, J. L., & Martínez‐Vizcaíno, V. (2015). The effects of physical exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized control trials. Child: care, health and development41(6), 779-788.

4. Groot, C., Hooghiemstra, A. M., Raijmakers, P. G. H. M., Van Berckel, B. N. M., Scheltens, P., Scherder, E. J. A., ... & Ossenkoppele, R. (2016). The effect of physical activity on cognitive function in patients with dementia: a meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Ageing research reviews25, 13-23.

5. Huang, P., Dong, Z., Huang, W., Zhou, C., Zhong, W., Hu, P., & Gao, L. (2017). Voluntary wheel running ameliorates depression-like behaviors and brain blood oxygen level-dependent signals in chronic unpredictable mild stress mice. Behavioural brain research330, 17-24.

6. Wu, S. Y., Wang, T. F., Yu, L., Jen, C. J., Chuang, J. I., Wu, F. S., ... & Kuo, Y. M. (2011). Running exercise protects the substantia nigra dopaminergic neurons against inflammation-induced degeneration via the activation of BDNF signaling pathway. Brain, behavior, and immunity25(1), 135-146.