Running Has An Unexpected Benefit For Your Brain

Whether you're a fan of running or not, you'll know that Smug Runner Syndrome is all too real: People who run sure love to tell others about the advantages of running — and how great they're feeling. And in news that may increase the smugness tenfold, apparently running might make you smarter, too, according to new research. Obviously there's nothing wrong with enjoying running — and, as this recent study reminds us, taking up running comes with a whole host of benefits, both in terms of physical fitness and in relation to other things — but, well... lording it over other people is generally best avoided. Still, though — it's good to know that you're exercising your brain as well as your body when you go for a run, right?

A study from the National Institute of Health (N.I.H), which was published in Cell Metabolism and examined by the New York Times this week, looked at the link between aerobic exercise and its effect on the brain — and the findings will reassure runners everywhere that the benefits of pounding the pavement are greater than physical. The study saw N.I.H. researchers working initially with mice, isolating their muscle cells and covering them in a peptide that tricks their cell metabolism into thinking aerobic exercise is taking place. The researches then examined all the chemicals that the muscle cells released during their phantom workout and looked at one particular substance: A protein known as Cathepsin B (CTSB), which helps sore muscles recover.

CTSB has not previously been linked to increased brain activity, according to the NY Times, so scientists added a little of this protein to other living neurons in petri dishes. The results proved that "those brain cells started making more proteins related to neurogenesis" — that is, they helped create extra neurons in the brain.

That was just the first part of the study, though. A trial involving human volunteers and monkeys was next — and Cathepsin B was found to be present in the bloodstream of these participants after exercise, too. The scientists realised the benefits of CTSB were linked to running when they tested the runners' memory and thinking and saw an increase in their mental performance compared to what it was pre-workout. And here's the super-interesting part: The human volunteers who exercised most intensely (on a treadmill for an hour or more per day, three times a week, for four months) had the highest levels of Cathepsin B in their blood — and therefore the most-improved test scores.

Commenting on the extraordinary findings, study authors said in their paper; "in humans, changes in CTSB levels correlated with fitness and hippocampus-dependent memory function. Our findings suggest CTSB as a mediator of effects of exercise on cognition."

What these experiments seem to have proved, then, is that our brains really do function better with increased exercise, because more exercise means more CTSB. However, the only downside is that you've got to exercise hard — and the study doesn't go too far in explaining how much CTSB is produced for the participants who didn't run for three hours a week across four months (which, let's face it, probably applies to the majority of us) will help in the same way. However, according to the Times, Henriette van Praag noted, "There is good reason to think that any amount of exercise is going to be better than none [for brain health]" — so that's something even those of us who are completely new to running can get onboard with.

There's also been a lot of research suggesting that the physiological advantages of outdoor exercise far outweigh that of running inside; one single outdoor run can boost runner self-esteem by 7.7 percent and overall mood by 14.2 percent, so it would be super interesting to compare the CTSB production from this study to that of outdoor runners and find out how we can boost our brain power when exercising in different environments. The more, the merrier, right?

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