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The Exact Reason Why Exercise Clears Your Mind

A runner's high and burned calories aren't the only perks of your workout. New science says that jog in the park might also be improving your overall mental clarity. Here's how.

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Do you find it easier to work through an issue while on the run? Does inspiration most often strike after a satisfying workout? These brain-clearing effects are not imagined. New research is constructing a more complete picture of the varied and profound ways that exercising your body changes the brain, including promoting a positive outlook, better problem solving skills, a deeper sense of calm, improved recall, and heightened cognitive abilities.

If you deal with daily stress (who doesn’t?), this kind of mental clarity isn’t just a boon. It’s also a vital part of your ability to function and perform in important life roles—whether you’re a parent, professional, or caregiver. Because stress has a way of clouding judgment, attracting negative thoughts and intense emotions, it can crowd out the ideas and solutions you need at that moment to address the stressful situation at hand. In fact, starting your day with exercise has lasting benefits that can help you better manage emotions, think more strategically and remember things all day long.

How does it work? Exercise creates new neurons, increases blood flow, and regulates hormones.
Harvard psychology professor Emily E. Bernstein, Ph.D., noticed what most of us experience after a morning run: She was a in a better mood, could think more clearly and work more effectively throughout the rest of her day. To satisfy her personal and professional curiosity about how running helps to process negative emotions, she initiated a study that was recently published in the journal Cognition and Emotion. The study involved 80 subjects, half whom ran for 30 minutes while the other half stretched, after which they all watched a particularly sad and emotional film clip. Those who had run overcame their sadness brought on by the film clip much quicker than those who had merely stretched.

Related: What’s the Best Time of the Day to Exercise?

Bernstein’s conclusions align with the lived experiences of subjects who participated in another study conducted by trail runner and researcher Alison Boudreau, Ph.D., in 2010. Her study examined how trail running helped women feel happier and less overwhelmed at work.

“As someone who’s been in very stressful jobs, I wanted to better understand this phenomenon,” Boudreau says. The female runners she surveyed reported that running helped them feel happier at work, which made it easier to do things like make critical decisions independently, sell products or services, obtain new clients, process overdue invoices and write teaching materials. “Running gives me a new perspective; issues aren’t as big and it makes my job more fun,” reported one study participant.

With difficult emotions out of the way, you’re better able to experience the other mind-clearing benefits of exercise, such as decision-making and organizing. These brain functions take place in the frontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with “executive-type” thinking processes, such as goal setting, problem solving and planning. A Chinese study published in the journal PLOS One in 2014 measured how as little as 20 minutes of aerobic activity effectively increases blood flow to the frontal cortex, creating a noticeable increase in neural activity associated with these kinds of executive-type functions.

Another way exercise supports executive-level brain activity is explained by an Irish study published in the journal Physiology + Behavior in 2011, which revealed that exercise stimulates production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved with the growth of new neurons. It seems that nothing else stimulates the growth of new neurons the way exercise does, and that these new neurons are directly involved with what the researchers called “cognitive enhancement.” 

This enhancement is a result of these new neurons appearing specifically in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning new skills, memory, and recall. These are just some studies comprising a growing body of evidence supporting the anecdotal experience of morning exercisers who say that starting their day with a workout clears their mind, creating the mental space they need to feel smarter and better equipped to tackle their day.

And what’s even better is that exercise benefits your brain in the long-term, too, keeping your mind sharp into old age. According to a new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, walking or running as little as 15.3 miles per week can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 40 percent. It does this by preserving grey matter in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved with short- and long-term memory. This study, among others like it, confirms that your workout doesn’t need to be really intense to be good for your noggin. Consistency trumps effort level. An easy activity that you love—and can do often—can lead to peace of mind.

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