Can Distance Running Make You a Better Thinker?

We all have that one friend who claims that running helps them think more clearly—maybe you’ve even experienced this yourself. A controlled study has finally shown what distance runners have known for decades; the brains of endurance athletes are fundamentally different than those who do not engage in this type of physical activity.

Researchers from University of Arizona, Tucson used fMRI scans to measure activity using the blood flow to different parts of the brain (called the BOLD signal). This is considered to be a good test of what areas of the brain are being activated. The researchers performed fMRIs on two groups of young, healthy men: runners and non-athletes. The fMRI scans showed increased connectivity between regions of the brain associated with motor control and working memory in runners. Additionally, there was decreased connectivity between the default mode network and other areas responsible for additional motor control; this decreased connectivity has been shown to be “generally beneficial for cognitive performance.”

Should you lace up your sneakers for a long run? There are many benefits to running, and this is just one more to add to the list. That said, this study group only consisted of elite athletes (those who are in running clubs or on collegiate teams). The effect of running on improved cognition has not been studied in a practical setting (like how they perform on a creativity test or task) or in people who are amateur distance runners. These all present opportunities for future research in this growing field. In the meantime, those of us who run long on a regular basis know that the clear mind we get from those hours of solitude probably does pay off.

Do you think more creatively or clearly after a long run or bike ride? Tell us about it in the comments!