They often call it the “runner’s high;” the feeling of satisfaction and energy that follows a good run. The simplest and most common explanation for this sensation is that exercise releases endorphins, which in turn lead to happiness. However, running provides further cognitive benefits that have only been recently discovered; namely through neurogenesis, the process of growing new brain cells.
The hippocampus, a section of the brain heavily associated with learning and memory, cultivates neuron cell growth in response to endurance exercise, like jogging or power walking. Up until the very recent past, the correlation between neuron growth and endurance exercise was noted, but never very well understood.
Now, however, studies have discovered that activities like running actually “stimulate the production of a protein called FNDC5.” After an extended period of time of experiencing this surplus production, another protein develops called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, also known as BDNF. This protein then facilitates the development of new nerves and synapses, the connection points between neuron nerves.
With continuous endurance exercise, runners are ultimately creating neuron connection points, and by extension increasing capacity for learning and affinity for memory. Interestingly enough, the Dana-Ferber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School is conducting research that seems to suggest these benefits can be encapsulated in pill form. The pill itself is a synthetic composition of aforementioned BDNF.
According to this study, a research team compared two groups of mice after a period of time in which one group participated in voluntary exercise and the other did not. Then, they measured for and found a significant increase of BDNF in the hippocampus region of the brain, thus indicating it is plausible to sustainably introduce the protein through exercise and the raised levels of FNDC5 that it provides.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this may correlate with early humans needing to forage over wide spaces, implying that, the more they moved, the more their brains developed. Exploring unfamiliar territory required the ability to develop better cognitive abilities and adapt, and thus, those that roamed far and improved themselves had an evolutionary advantage.
Excitingly, BDNF pills could feasibly be used in conjunction with other medication to treat Alzheimer’s patients. Not only does excess BDNF foster creation of excess synapses, but it also helps to preserve existing neuron cells. This means that an excess of BDNF would work for Alzheimer’s patients on two fronts, in terms of both preservation and creation of neuron cells.
In that vein, it has previously been established that exercise provides more cognitive benefits to older individuals, with stroke victims and Alzheimer’s patients experiencing benefits shortly after starting an exercise regimen. Studies have shown that consistent exercise can reduce risk for similar neurological disorders, with neurogenesis improving brain activity in addition to working muscles.
Whether through promoting cardiovascular or cognitive health, running and similar exercise provides a variety of benefits to the human body. There’s a lot that still isn’t understood about the neurological processes that make it so effective at warding off depression and cognitive degeneration, but regardless, it never hurts to get outside and enjoy a good jog around the block.