We know running (and regular physical activity in general) is good for our physical health, but there is more and more research coming out demonstrating its positive effects on our brains. A recent study looked specifically at marathon running and found that training to run 42.2 kilometres is good for your brain and retinal blood vessels, supporting the idea that exercise increases the neuroplasticity of your brain.
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. It’s what allows the nerve cells in your brain (a.k.a. your neurons) to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. Neuroplasticity is important because, without it, learning and memory would not be possible.
The researchers compared 100 marathon runners (80 of whom were male) with 46 age-and-sex-matched sedentary controls. They studied the participants over a 6-month period with six visits — 12 weeks and two weeks before their marathon, immediately after their marathon, 24 hours, 72 hours and 12 weeks after the marathon.
Each visit involved assessing cognitive parameters and retinal vessel parameters. At the end of the study, the researchers determined that chronic exercise (such as what is involved in marathon training) seems to prime the central nervous system for acute, intensive bouts of exercise. This indicates there may be a relationship between cognitive performance in high-demand tasks and retinal vasculature, which supports the idea that exercise improves the neuroplasticity of your brain.
What does this mean for runners?
Much more research needs to be done to better understand how marathon training (and long-distance running in general) improves the health and function of the brain. Still, this is promising research to demonstrate that the benefits of running go far beyond physical changes, and adds to the list of reasons everyone should get out and go for a run.