A blog by runners. For runners.

A healthy body equals a healthy mind

We all know exercise does a body good: It yields a slimmer waistline, a stronger physique, and a lower risk of diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But, as many runners know, fitness also affects the mind. Who hasn’t gone on a run to clear their head or to feel the elusive “runner’s high”? I know I have.

Exercise gives you more than just a rush of endorphins or “feel good” hormones. Physical activity can also boost brainpower. Regular exercise can help ward off age-related mental decline, improve our ability to juggle multiple mental tasks at once, enhance memory, and lift our mood.

Your brain on exercise

We tend to think of memory loss as something that’s bound to happen with age. But that’s not necessarily the case. Cognitive decline occurs as the result of decreased brain stimulation. However, both mental activity — think crossword puzzles — and physical activity can help you stay mentally sharp.

Here’s what exercise can do for your brain:

  • Improve memory. Adults who walk regularly have better memories than those who don’t engage in physical activity. The more you exercise, the better your memory gets. One study found for every extra mile walked per week, participants had a 13 percent less chance of cognitive decline.
  • Perform complex tasks better. Exercise improves executive brain functions, such as organizing information and multi-tasking. In addition, workouts that involve coordination, rhythm, and strategy — like ballroom dancing — are best for improving higher-order thinking.
  • Prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Regular exercise can lower risk or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Sedentary individuals may be twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as adults who exercised vigorously at least three times per week. In particular, running improves functioning of the hippocampus — the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and associated with Alzheimer’s.
  • Help treat depression. Exercise increases serotonin levels in the brain, and low levels of serotonin are linked with clinical depression. Doctors have prescribed exercise to depression sufferers for years. In fact, exercise may work as well as medication in treating mild depression in some people. The results are cumulative, too. The longer you exercise, the greater the drop in depressive symptoms.

A large study conducted in the United Kingdom showed that people who were physically active on a weekly basis as a child and adult performed better on mental tests of learning, memory, attention, and reasoning at age 50 when compared to those who worked out less often. So, take your kids with you next time you work out. You could set them up for a physically and mentally healthy future.

What’s more, the research revealed people who exercised intensely throughout their lives had the best brain function. Keep that in mind the next time you’re considering taking it easy on a run. Kicking up the intensity with a little speed work or hill interval training can help keep your brain in tiptop shape.

Written by Jenilee Matz, MPH. Jen is writer, runner, and new(ish) mom living in the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C.