Can Running Make You Smarter?

Women's Running: What is running's effect on the brain?

Dr. John Ratey: I believe that exercise does more for the brain than it does for the body. Running brings our mood, attention, motivation, stress levels and anxiety back into equilibrium. If we move our bodies, we are better able to regulate our moods and deal with stress in our lives. Decreasing our stress levels in turn helps us control our impulses, which means fewer instances of temper tantrums, road rage and alcohol use.

WR: Can exercise improve intelligence?

JR: In many ways, exercise is one of the best ways to optimize our ability to learn. Exercises, such as running, make us more focused, less distracted and more motivated--all traits of better learners.

In the past decade, scientists have learned that exercise has a marked physical impact on brain cells as well. Across our lifetime, brain cells grow and become better communicators with each other. In fact, we make new brain cells every day. Nothing that we know of helps stimulate the growth within these cells better than aerobic or strength training exercise.

Studies show that exercise has even bigger payoffs for women approaching middle age. It's very important for women to stay active during menopause and afterwards in order to prevent cognitive decline, as well as the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

WR: How often should women exercise to reap the positive mental benefits of running?

JR: Right now, we don't have accurate information on the minimum amount of exercise necessary to improve cognitive function. If you are a runner, you are probably exercising enough already. We do have some idea that 180 minutes of moderate exercise per week is the point at which you being to see a flattening effect. In other words, doing more than that won't increase your benefit.

WR: Is there a point of diminishing returns?

JR: Over-training will have a negative effect not only on your body but also on your mind. Training too hard increases your stress hormone, cortisol, which can lead to a number of health issues. Studies have shown that cyclists who bike at a high intensity for 75 minutes or more begin to activate their stress hormone.

This isn't a concern for the average person, but competitive athletes and marathon runners should remain cautious of their efforts and recover properly.

WR: Is there anything else that runners can do to ensure their mind stays healthy?

JR: Runners should also try to engineer more active playtime into their routine. This could be joining a volleyball team, playing tennis with a friend or going out for hikes with the family. Trying new activities gives runners a different kind of challenge while extending their physical vocabulary and ensuring that they keep exercise fun, so their running program doesn't become stale.

John J. Ratey, MD, is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical
School. Dr. Ratey is also a clinical psychiatrist, research synthesizer, speaker and author of such books as Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Shadow Syndromes and A User's Guide to the Brain.

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Jessica Sebor is the editor in chief of Women's Running Magazine, the world's largest women-specific running magazine.

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