Life

The Science Behind How Running Elevates Our Lives


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As humans, we often have to struggle between our desire for instant gratification (that thing is there right now! And I want it!) and the adage that “good things come to those who wait.” We may know intellectually that if we don’t spend five bucks on a cup of coffee today, we could save for an amazing vacation in a year or that not smoking a cigarette will keep us from getting sick 20 years down the line. But we crave instant results. We want that instant jolt of happiness. So even when we know the better thing to do in the long run, we often lose the battle with our impulse control.

It’s the same when I decide to take up running and get healthier. I want to instantly feel better. I want to look in the mirror and be all toned after one 20 minute jog. I want to feel happier and less anxious right away. And I want to step on the scale and have it flash my magical goal number while a sound goes off like that of a slot machine when you win big as balloons fall from the ceiling.

“Who put those balloons in our ceiling?” my partner will ask. “Did someone break into our house?”

But I won’t care about those petty questions because I’m basking in all of my one-day success in running. I ran! I’m now instantly fit! Except….the reality is that running is hard at first. It makes us tired, out of breath, and sore. And even when you do it three whole days IN A ROW, the scale usually impassively shows the exact same number as when you started.

“It’s not working!” I’ll scream at the heavens, after less than a week of trying.

Inspiration to not only go for a run today but to continue to get up and strap on your running shoes every morning can be a challenge. We all know running is good for us in an abstract way. We all know that sticking with it will bring amazing results both mentally and physically, but doing it consistently enough to achieve our long-term goals is hard to do when we can’t see the benefit right now, in front of us.

And there’s a scientific reason for that. Researchers have found that when we wrestle with two choices that will affect us positively at different times, say: sitting on the couch and having a piece of cake now or going for a run that will help us later, different parts of our brain get activated as we wrestle with the short and long-term benefits. The emotional areas of our brain push for that instant “now” feeling of satisfaction, while the logical part fights for what will give us the greatest benefit. And when we make the ‘smarter’ choice, the logical part of our brain lights up.

Our logical brain wants to win more arguments, but sometimes, it needs some tools to do so. And the good news is, there are lots of studies that will excite the reasoning part of your brain about the sport. Science tells us that running does some amazing things for our bodies. So, the next time you’re struggling over whether you should push yourself further in a run or just throw on the TV, we hope this list of the scientific benefits of running will give you some reminders of why you should hit the pavement.

1. Running can instantly boost your mood.

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Okay, I’ll give you one bit of instant gratification to inspire you to hit the trails before we jump into the long-term effects. We’ve all heard of a runner’s high. But the casual runner may have also wondered if the idea of getting high off a run is just an anecdotal way of runners expressing that running makes them feel good generally. Or a sneaky conspiracy in the war on drugs. How good could running make us feel really?

It turns out really good. Because a runner’s high is a real measurable feeling. And it’s not just due to run-of-the-mill endorphins either. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that running triggers chemicals called endocannabinoids. They’re similar to what gives us a high in pot, and they cause us to have a feeling of euphoria during a run.

So go for a run, it might actually cause an instant feeling of happiness! Plus, running has been shown to have benefits in the long-term treatment of those with mild to moderate depression so there’s really no losing on this one.

2. It helps you work out difficult problems.

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“I just run. I run in void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void,” writer Haruki Murakami said in his memoir about running. It’s something many of us who run have experienced, the kind of relaxation we find from a run when we’re stuck on a problem, and then, the ability to see a solution more clearly. Running seems to clear your mind and help you get creative.

One reason is because, beyond lifting your mood, running helps us focus on what we learn and makes it easier for us to zero in on the task at hand. A Dutch study of school children found that when the students were given short bouts of physical activity, they were able to pay better attention and focus more during time in the classroom.

But running doesn’t just help our brains with focus and memory, it can stimulate creativity as well. One interesting study on creativity looked at the brains of jazz musicians when they were performing versus composing their own original pieces. It found that when the musicians composed their own pieces (and were most creatively stimulated) that parts of the prefrontal cortex, where we do a lot of our more conscious/rational thinking, were suppressed.

Running may have a similar effect on the prefrontal cortex, also decreasing some of the cortical activity in the region. A study published in Experimental Brain Research found that when they looked at what was happening in the brain of ultramarathon runners before, during, and after a run, the activity in their frontal cortex was decreased during and after running.

It’s possible that, by stimulating the brain in a similar pattern to the way it reacts when we’re at our most creative, running actually helps to spark that creativity. So, that settles it. In order to finish our brilliant screenplays about a protagonist (who is clearly just us) who tackles and solves the fragility of the human condition, all we have to do is go for a few more morning runs. Done! We’re going to win Cannes!

3. It will make you physically healthier

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Running helps you lose weight which in turn, can help control your blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, lower your cholesterol, and give you a healthier heart. There are a lot of great physical benefits to the sport that relate to weight loss. And one exciting benefit is that you don’t just lose more weight from the running itself. Running can actually up your metabolism after you finish. One study found that after completing 45 minutes of exercise, participants burned an average of 190 more calories over the next 14 hours than those who were more sedentary. That’s pretty great.

Even the physical aspects of running that people have long touted as a negative effect are being challenged. Contrary to popular belief that running is bad for joints, researchers have found that running actually improves our joint health over time. At Brigham Young University, they tested young runners without knee injuries or history of joint problems, and then looked at the fluid in their knees before and after running on a treadmill. In particular, they were looking closely at the molecules that relate to inflammation. They found that, overall, the participants’ knees after running showed substantially lower levels in cells that contribute to inflammation than when they didn’t run.

That means that for people without a history of injury, running may actually reduce possible markers of arthritis rather than cause or worsen them.

4. It will help you sleep.

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The next time you wake up in a panic from stress, and spend two hours frantically web md-ing symptoms you have, and then putting unneeded vitamin supplements into your Amazon cart to review in the morning (Oh that’s just me? Okay.), maybe consider adding some running into your daily routine to avoid the wake up. Because it turns out that if you exercise regularly, the quality of your sleep and even duration between wake up times will improve.

A study at Northwestern University had subjects with chronic insomnia exercise for a total of 30-40 minutes, four times a week, for 16 weeks. The study found that the regular introduction of exercise dramatically improved quality of sleep, duration of time spent asleep, mood, and vitality for participants.

Of course, the researchers did not report on whether some of that increased quality of sleep was due to the increase in running causing a decrease in Freddy Krueger-like monsters entering the patients’ dreams in order to murder them, but, anecdotally, I can tell you that dream serial killers rarely target the sleep state of those in good shape. They want the easy kill, you know?

5. It ups your libido and sexual satisfaction.

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Running can help improve our self-image which can lead to feeling sexier in the bedroom, but it’s not just our mental state that improves. Running also leads to an increased state of arousal and greater satisfaction when you actually get down to it (or go down to it? You know what…I’ll show myself out). One study of men found that when the participants worked out an hour a day, four days a week, they had sex more frequently, performed more reliably with their partner, and enjoyed their orgasms more.

And we’re not leaving out the ladies. For women, exercising has been shown to increase their libido as well. In a separate study, women were asked to do acute exercise for 20 minutes and then shown an x-rated film. In the women who had exercised (as opposed to the control group), there was an increase of blood flow to their genitals, and an increased feeling of arousal when watching the people on screen.

And if you’re not convinced that running will lead to better orgasms later, maybe you’ll actually just start having them during a run session. Indiana University studied exercise-induced orgasms and found that women actually can (and some do!) have an orgasm from activating their core muscles during exercise without any vaginal stimulation.

I mean… it sounds a little like the unicorn of running benefits, but hey, worth a shot.

“It may be that exercise — which is already known to have significant benefits to health and well-being — has the potential to enhance women’s sexual lives as well.” researcher Debby Herbenick of the Indiana University study said in a statement. Better sex and possible spontaneous orgasms is definitely a good reason to buy some good running gear and take up the hobby. Like…now.

6. You’ll look younger.

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It’s not just that running can add years to your life, it also actually makes you look like you just took a giant swig from the fountain of youth (or sold your soul into a painting that takes on every year you age so that you’ll look young forever. You know, either/or).

In multiple studies conducted at McMaster University in Ontario, researchers have found that running can actually reduce or prevent the physical signs of aging. In one, they had one group of mice remain sedentary, while the other was given access to run on a wheel. As they aged, the sedentary mice had graying/balding fur and became physically weak. The mice who ran kept their fur in quantity and color far longer.

And if hot, barely-legal-looking mice aren’t your thing, in another of their studies, the researchers had human participants exercise regularly and then tested skin from their buttocks (because it was exposed to the least amount of conditions) before and after to see if there was a cellular difference. They found that those who exercised in the study, had much healthier skin composition when compared to those of their peers who hadn’t. Those above 40, they said, who exercised, often had skin much closer to a 20 or 30-year-old.

And who doesn’t want to be 65 with the skin of a 28-year-old? If that’s not a good enough reason to inspire you take up running now, I don’t know what will be!

So let’s hit the track and be young forever! Or at least, look and feel like we are by being happier, more creative, physically fitter, and really, really hot with the skin of a newborn baby. Oh, and we’ll have more sex! Yeah, that’ll give our long-term brains something to win a fight over when we just want to do the easiest thing and stream TV.

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