What Running ACTUALLY Does To Our Brains

mental benefits of running

Whether you’re a seasoned runner or not, you’ve probably heard of “runner’s high”. These experiences are usually attributed to a burst of endorphins that are released during a workout, but is it truly an endorphin rush? Or is it something else? Let’s break down the phenomenon of runner’s high and the many other mental benefits of running. 

What Happens to You During a Run

Every time you start to run, your body goes through a transition. Breathing becomes heavy and your pulse quickens. Your heart pumps harder to move blood to your muscles and brain. When you hit your stride, your body releases endorphins that help to prevent your muscles from feeling pain. It’s been long believed that endorphins cause that relaxed post-run feeling (“runner’s high”), but emerging research says otherwise. 

What is “runner’s high”?

“Runner’s high” is known as a powerful feeling that occurs near the end or after a run. The experience varies from runner to runner — it’s been described as a feeling of ecstasy, invincibility, nirvana… the list goes on. It’s widely believed an endorphin rush causes these experiences. This is because of studies in the 1980s and 1990s that showed beta-endorphin levels increase during a run or any aerobic exercise over an hour. These beta-endorphins target the same receptors as opiates and actually have similar biological effects. However, this hypothesis has a flaw because endorphins do not cross the blood-brain barrier. So, if the endorphins don’t make it to your brain, how do you experience this “high” after a run?

So, is “runner’s high” actually real?

Some runners will definitely tell you that they feel something after particular runs. But if it isn’t an endorphin rush, what is it? Now that endorphins have been ruled out, what really causes “runner’s high”? Researchers have been looking at neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that transmit a message from a nerve cell across the synapse to a target cell) that may have a role in affecting our post-exercise mood. Among those are norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters have been shown to reduce depression and happen to be produced in high concentrations during exercise. 

New research has also revealed that another type of molecule, endocannabinoids (eCBs), may be responsible for that post-run euphoria. Endocannabinoids are self-produced chemicals that are similar to those found in marijuana. They’re small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to the receptors in our brain. Like endorphins, a run will release these endocannabinoids into your system that may feel like a “high”. And research has confirmed higher levels of endocannabinoids (the ones the body produces naturally) in the blood after exercise. 

mental benefits of running

The Mental Benefits Of Running

Aside from being good for your body, running also benefits our minds! Here are some other research-backed ways that running benefits our brains and moods.

Running sharpens your memory

Did you know that there’s a link between running and improving memory? Brazilian researchers subjected sedentary, elderly rats to five minutes of treadmill running several times a week over the course of only five weeks. They found that the memory center in the rats’ brains reportedly experienced a surge in the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This led to results on rodent memory tests that were akin to those for younger rats. All the more reason to lace up your running shoes and hit the trails!

Taking up running protects the brain from aging

Wondering whether or not you should retire those brain games and take up running? Research found that physical exercise (running and aerobics) are much better than playing brain games. Brain scans have shown a lower rate of brain shrinkage and cognitive decline in elderly people that are physically active. 

Going for a run leads to better sleep

Taking up running (and other forms of regular exercise) can lead to better sleep, but it may take some time to really reap the benefits of better zzz’s. A sleep study of adults aged 55 and older with chronic insomnia split them up into two groups. One remained sedentary and the other group began a regular exercise program that included three to four 30-minute sessions per week of moderate aerobic exercise. After 16 weeks, the exercise group experienced improved sleep, including duration and quality. This group also reported improvements to their moods and to their quality of life. 

Running can decrease your cravings for unhealthy food

If you’re trying to curb unhealthy cravings, you may want to take up running! Research has shown that after one hour of fast running, the participants were more likely to reach for healthy foods over junk. 

Taking up running can curb symptoms of depression

There’s no one-size-fits-all cure for depression, but multiple studies have concluded that regular aerobic exercise can reduce the symptoms of clinical depression. In fact, one study revealed that running was just as effective as psychotherapy. The study split participants into three groups—one that ran, another that participated in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and another that did both. All three groups experienced a very similar decline in depressive symptoms. 

Running can make you a better learner

Both high-intensity running and low-impact running can improve your ability to retain new information. According to research findings, running boosts levels of the protein BDNF (or brain-derived neurotrophic factor), and the neurotransmitter catecholamine — both are heavily associated with the brain’s cognitive (and learning) functions.

Related Article: Why do some workouts leave us feeling better or worse than when we started? It turns out that there are some signs of a good workout that go beyond what’s reflected on our smartwatches, how sweaty we get, and how sore we feel. Learn more about what constitutes a rewarding exercise session and the signs of a good workout.        

This article is for informational purposes only. Consult a doctor before starting any exercise program, especially running, as it is a very strenuous form of exercise and can be hard on joints.


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