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Running: Good for the Body and the Brain

Sharon StanikaBy Sharon Starika

Could running make you smarter? The answer may surprise you.

Most of us think of running as a physical activity. Certainly that appears to be the case. Running can make us leaner, trimmer and provides more oxygen to the muscles making them faster and stronger. Most of us know about the physical benefits of running and that is usually what motivates us to do it.

Running also has an emotional effect on us. Running for at least 20 minutes produces a natural chemical called Serotonin, which allows us to feel calm, centered, focused and happy. What a great natural drug we have built into our system to allow us to focus better, therefore being more productive with our time.

But what about the mental effects running may have on you? Only recently have there been studies that focus on the evolution of the brain and the impact exercise/running has played.
As stated in a recent New York Times article on January 1, 2013:

Our brains were shaped and sharpened by movement, the idea goes, and we continue to require physical activity for our brains to function optimally.  Endurance produced meals, which provided energy for mating, which meant that adept early joggers. …their bodies developing longer legs, shorter toes, less hair, and complicated inner ear mechanisms to maintain balance and stability during upright ambulation. Simultaneously, humans were becoming smarter. Their brains were increasing rapidly in size. Today humans have a brain that is about three times the size that would be expected. Scientists are suggesting that physical activity played a critical role in making our brains larger. What has been discovered is the development of substances that promotes tissue growth and health, including a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF. These substances are important for endurance. They are also known to drive brain growth. Being in motion made them smarter, and being smarter now allowed them to move more efficiently. As Dr. Lieberman states, there is a deep evolutionary basis for the relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind.”

- Gretchen Reynolds.

What I find intriguing and exciting about these findings is the heightened awareness surrounding the benefits that running provides to us.
I’m sure many of you haven’t thought much about running to make you smarter. Perhaps now is a good time to look back over your life since taking up running and notice for yourself the development of your mind.

What has changed? What has improved?

Often we think, as we get older we will begin to loose our mind. What if we are possibly reversing some of this by running and being physically active? What I find key to this article is the discussion and conclusive studies about running.

Perhaps this information could impact how you look at your running lifestyle for the year. We have just started a new year. So often we begin to plan new goals, perhaps bigger goals to “out do” the year we just left behind. Sometimes I think we get to a point where it may not be possible to out do what was previously done. Maybe it’s a year where you begin to have a new focus. Maybe you could create a goal around being smarter, being calmer, having better use of your days and time. What if your goal about running had nothing to do with beating last year’s 10k time, or half marathon time, or marathon time? Maybe the goal is to be a better parent.

For me, running is so much more than staying fit. Somehow I knew deep inside that I was benefitting in so many ways, more than just physically, but often it is hard to articulate or express what we feel from running.

I’d like to encourage you to find some time, perhaps on your next run, to think about what NEW goal you could set for yourself this year that has nothing to do with your time or your distance.

How would that goal impact your life and the lives of others around you? Running truly is so much more than running. It is a lifestyle, a way of being, and a way of expressing oneself.

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Sharon Starika is a runner and triathlete with over 20 years of competitive racing experience. She is a Guild Feldenkrais Practitioner and lives in Park City, Utah where she has a private practice. She teaches classes and clinics around the country and offers instructional online workshops so people interested can practice her methods anywhere.

For contact information go to www.sharonstarika.com or Sharon@sharonstarika.com.

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