Have you ever noticed how you can think more clearly when you’re running? Life’s problems suddenly seem smaller and many of us claim it clears our heads, but why is this? Anna Bartter finds out.
I don’t know about you, but I often do my best thinking on a run. I’ll be miles from home, with no access to a pen and paper, when inspiration strikes and the chances are, I’ll have forgotten my brief flash of brilliance the instant I get home.
This also seems to be the case when I’m in the shower. Brainwaves wash over me like there’s no tomorrow, but sitting at my desk, my mind goes blank. It’s clear that lacing my trainers on a regular basis is benefitting me mentally and physically, but what’s really going on here? Why is it easier to work through problems when I’m pounding the pavements?
Why does running help us to think clearly?
I know I’m not alone. Chatting with friends, many of us experience the same clarity of thought when we’re out running, and it turns out we’re not imagining its mind-clearing magic.
“People often find their thoughts are calmer when they are running and they can problem-solve without actually realising they are doing it,” says fitness and nutrition expert Penny Weston. “The combination of fresh air and exercise can give you a lot of clarity. Outdoor running is optimum, because you’re in nature – breathing fresh air and taking in the sights and sounds of trees and birds are all wonderful for clearing the mind.”
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“Running can help control stress and improve our brain’s ability to deal with any problems we’re experiencing,” says Weston. “This is because exercise increases concentrations of norepinephrine,a chemical that helps moderate the brain’s response to stress. Norepinephrine is both a chemical messenger and a hormone, and it increases alertness, arousal and attention in the body, which in turn boosts focus.”
It’s accepted wisdom that exercising increases blood flow in the body, sending more oxygen and energy to our muscles and organs. It makes sense, then, that this translates to improved cognitive function.
And the benefits don’t stop there. According to studies, exercise boosts the production of certain chemicals which control the growth of new blood vessels in the brain as well as benefitting the health and even abundance of new brain cells. So by working up a sweat, you are quite literally boosting your brainpower.
Running helps us to process tricky emotions
A clearer mind means more space for problem-solving
With the bigger issues out of the way, and our problems in perspective, our brains are free to wander the paths less travelled.
In his podcast Feel Better, Live More, Dr Rangan Chatterjee describes how contrary to accepted wisdom, when it comes to thinking, less is more.
“We used to think that when we stopped focusing on a task in front of us, our brains would go to sleep,” he says. “That is not what happens. There is a part of the brain, called the default mode network (DMN), that goes into overdrive when we stop focusing on a task in front of us.”
“The DMN helps you to solve problems and it helps you to be more creative. This is the reason why so many of us have our best ideas when we go for a walk, or when we’re in the shower. Because you’ve disconnected, you’re not focused on anything, so your brain does what it wants to do which is help you and solve problems for you. You can tap into this innate potential that your brain has when you give it downtime.”
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Running helps boost creativity
In addition to its brain-clearing benefits, running has also been shown to boost creativity in other ways. A good run fires up the brain and releases the feel-good chemical dopamine into our system. As well as leading to a sense of wellbeing, dopamine is most associated with creativity, and studies show that people who exercise regularly are better at creative thinking.
Researchers at the University of Graz in Austria looked at the impact of regular exercise on the human imagination and found a clear relationship between activity and creativity.
The benefits are long-lasting
The good news is that these brain-boosting benefits continue long after you’ve forgotten your run. “The benefits of running stay with you long after you’ve finished, especially if you run regularly,” says Weston.“Research has shown that people who exercise regularly are more productive and have more energy than their colleagues who don’t exercise. After a run, your mind and body will feel the benefits for the rest of the day and it can also help you sleep better, which again improves your mental health.”
So the next time you’re struggling with a problem, or having trouble thinking outside the box – go for a run. Your body and your brain will thank you for it.
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