Running Improves Cognition, Memory, Creativity, and Overall Sleep Quality

Still looking for the perfect reason to start jogging? Scientists now have proof that regular exercise can improve learning ability, boost creativity, promote better sleep, and even potentially mitigate the mental deterioration that comes with old age. We all know that running is good for the body; now there’s evidence that it’s even better for the mind.

Running = Better Memory and Learning Ability

According to a 2009 study led by neuroscientists from Cambridge University, running is a good way to stimulate the brain to grow fresh gray matter. In fact, running for even just a few days can result in hundreds of thousands of fresh, new brain cells, particularly in a region that’s linked to the creation, recollection, and organization of memories. The result is an improvement in the ability to recall memories and not confuse them with one another, which also helps in learning new skills, retaining important information, and other cognitive mental tasks. Not surprisingly, experts say that these same neurological benefits could also potentially mitigate or slow down age-induced mental deterioration.

So apparently, there is some wisdom to the idea of running in order to ‘clear your head’. If you’re feeling mentally sluggish at work, the solution could be right under your feet. If you can somehow fit regular running or exercise into your busy schedule, it could mean a drastic improvement in your ability to accomplish work-related tasks that require memory and cognitive performance.

While neuroscientists agree on the cognitive benefits of running, what they’re not exactly sure about is why running leads to neurogenesis or the growth of new brain cells. Experts speculate that it may have something to do with the higher hormone levels or increased blood flow that comes with regular exercise. It could also be the fact that exercise can mitigate stress by reducing the body’s levels of cortisol, a hormone that not only induces stress, but also inhibits neurogenesis.

Whatever the exact reason, running or aerobic activity is a surefire way to improve cognitive ability as well as reduce stress. And the benefits don’t stop there.

Regular Running = Improved Cognition and Creativity

In a more recent 2013 study led by cognitive psychologists from Leiden University in the Netherlands, experts found that the cognitive benefits of running can also translate to improved creativity.

The study involved 96 participants, 48 males and 48 females, all of which were 20-year old native Dutch speakers. They were divided into two groups: athletes (exercises for at least 3 times per week) and non-athletes (exercises less than once a week).

The participants were made to answer creativity tests that measured both divergent and convergent thinking before, during, and after using a treadmill in varied levels of difficulty. The idea was to measure how performing light to strenuous physical activity can affect their capacity to think creatively.

The first test involved divergent thinking: the ability to find several solutions to one problem. Participants had to think of as many alternate uses as they could for 6 common household items during a given time period. They scored points for the amount of categories they covered, the uniqueness of their responses, the sum total of their responses, and how much detail went into each response.

The second test involved convergent thinking: the ability to find a single solution to a given problem; this form of thinking is thought to require more cognitive control as compared to divergent thinking. Participants were given three unrelated words (ie: Swiss, cottage, cake); they then had to think of the one word that could be sensibly combined with any and all of the given three (ie: cheese). Throughout the experiment, they had to find the answers for a total of 30 different sets of 3 words in their native Dutch.

The results are as follows: In both athlete and non-athlete groups, being on a treadmill interfered with their ability to score points in the divergent thinking task (finding different solutions). Meanwhile, the results of the convergent thinking task (finding a single solution) took an interesting turn.

While exercise impaired the non-athlete group’s ability to perform convergent thinking, it did the opposite for the athlete group, whose performance actually improved with the level of exercise.

As explained by Leiden University cognitive psychologist, Lorenza Colzato, this points to the conclusion that regular exercise can act as an enhancer of cognitive control, thereby promoting creativity in the process.

Looks like the stereotype of a business executive working while pedaling on a stationary bike isn’t so silly after all.

Regular Running = Better Sleep Quality

Did you know that a total of 150 minutes of moderate to highly strenuous exercise per week can improve your sleep quality by as much as 65%? These numbers are based on an analysis of statistical sleep-related data from 2005 to 2006 – a comprehensive look at the sleep and exercise patterns of more than 2600 men and women, ranging from 18 to 85 years old.

150 minutes of moderate to vigorous weekly physical exercise is actually the national recommended guideline for maintaining good physical health. And according to the abovementioned data analysis, committing to this guideline, combined with other healthy habits,  can not only improve sleep, but can also reduce instances of leg cramps during bedtime, feeling sleepy during the day, and difficulty concentrating when you’re tired.

In a related study, sleep experts also found that it doesn’t matter what time of the day you choose to exercise. Those who exercised heavily during the wee hours of the night experienced more sleep-friendly benefits than those who exercised only slightly during daylight. Basically, the harder and the more you exercise, the better you’ll sleep. As long as you’re not undergoing a form of sleep therapy that recommends a specific time for exercise, you can clock in your weekly 150 minutes at any time during the day or night.

Running = Any Moderate to Strenuous Physical Activity

While we started on the many benefits of running, what we’ve actually discussed are the many benefits of regular physical activity. This is because you don’t need to limit yourself to just running or jogging. There are plenty of alternatives to running that can provide the same amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity on a regular basis.

Yoga, muay thai, karate, swimming, and dancing are just some examples of activities that can regularly push your body to its limits and trigger the abovementioned benefits. And if you’re not ready to take on strenuous exercises, you can start with easier and less physically challenging activities, like biking, hiking, tai-chi, and even regular sexual intercourse (also a proven way to fight insomnia). Just remember: make sure to try and make your way up to activities that are physically at par with running. This increases your chances of reaping all the benefits of running on a regular basis: neurogenesis, improved cognition and creativity, potential resistance to age-induced mental deterioration, and healthier sleep.