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The surprising benefits of running

Many people are attracted to running because of the physical benefits it brings. For people looking to lose weight (or keep it off), improve their endurance and stamina, and just to feel better overall, running is one of the best types of exercise there is. But there are some surprising benefits of running that make it an even more attractive form of exercise than it might initially appear to be.

Running can help you feel better when you’re awake, to be sure. But running also helps you with sleep. Indeed, you can get to sleep faster and sleep deeper and better if you’re a runner. As Johns Hopkins Medicine reports, there’s a correlation between exercise and deeper sleep. Researchers don’t know exactly why, or what time of day is best for exercising to bring about better sleep, but there are some indications as to how the correlation might work.

According to that article, “Moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get. Slow wave sleep refers to deep sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate.”

However, aerobic exercise results in an endorphin release, so if people exercise too close to bedtime, it can actually delay sleep. Exercise also raises the core body temperature; the Johns Hopkins article advises, “Elevation in core body temperature signals the body clock that it’s time to be awake. After about 30 to 90 minutes, the core body temperature starts to fall. The decline helps to facilitate sleepiness.”

Not only does running help you to sleep better, it also helps you to think better when you’re awake. A Runner’s World article lists a number of connections between the exercise that comes specifically from running and cognitive function.

One of the ways in which this happens is that you literally build up your brain as you run. According to the article, “Exercise drives the growth of new nerve cells (neurogenesis) and blood vessels (angiogenesis), which combine to increase brain tissue volume.” It also points out that “regular exercisers increased the volume of their hippocampus – that part of the brain linked to learning and memory.” That two percent boost is intriguing when you consider that scientists didn’t think that part of the brain could grow at all in adulthood.

And your brain doesn’t just get bigger with each run — it gets better. The Guardian points to numerous studies showing increased cognitive function associated with running in several different areas. That includes executive function, described in the article as “a suite of mental high-level faculties that include the ability to marshall attention, tune out distractions, switch between tasks and solve problems.” It also points to connections between exercise and improved memory, as well as running-generated endorphins contributing to better overall brain health.

So, while there are clear physical advantages to running, the mental side of what you get from pounding the pavement can’t be overlooked. Start a running regimen, and it might be reflected in how rested you are and how much smarter you might feel.