Why Running Helps Us Think – 7 Brain Boosting Benefits

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By Stuart
Goulden

Avid runner. 10x marathons. Daily 10kms. Award-winning journalist when not moving (about me)

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1889) wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

I believe the same to be true of running.

Regularly putting on my running shoes and immersing myself in nature ignites my creativity. It’s where I clear my head, let my mind drift, and work through problems faster than ever.

What’s more, the inspiration I find on runs stays with me long after I’ve physically recovered.

But don’t just take my word for it…

In this article we’ll explore the many well being and brain-boosting benefits of running, and the scientific research behind them.

Expect to finish it with more mental clarity, improved mood, and feeling more motivated than ever to get out and give your ideas some legs.

7 Ways Running Helps Us Think Creatively

#1 Free-Flowing Ideas on Tap

Running mental health benefits, running through woods © rundure.com

Exercise and lightbulb moments have a long-standing special relationship.

In 2014, a team of Stanford researchers sought to cement it further by examining how creative thinking was impacted by walking. They conducted experiments with 176 participants that placed them in different situations:

  • Using a treadmill facing a blank wall
  • Walking outside
  • Sitting inside facing a wall
  • Sitting in a wheelchair outside

In each situation, the participants were asked to complete a range of tasks that are typically used to measure creative thinking.

The results were incredible: Participants were dramatically more creative while walking than sitting around. The average increase in creative output was around 60%.

Getting outside mattered too: 100% of those who walked outside generated at least one novel high-quality idea compared with 50% of those seated inside.

Leg movement, visual stimulation and the better moods associated with exercising outdoors all contributing to better ideas, and more of them. A free activity that leads to free-flowing creativity.

It’s no surprise history’s most celebrated writers, thinkers and creators – including Beethoven, Dickens, Darwin, and Jobs – swore by working through ideas on the go.

#2 Create an ‘Incubation Period’ for Ideas

We’ve all had that epiphany when on a run or in the shower.

For me, there’s no better way to move beyond writer’s block or work through a new challenge.

If you’re stuck and feeling uninspired, going for a run is such simple cure.

It’s only when we relieve ourselves from high-pressure situations and allow our minds to wander, such as running at lunch time, can we do our best thinking.

Here’s why: our subconscious mind has been searching for that killer idea or solution all along, but it’s only able to enter your conscious mind when there’s sufficient space. A relaxed state of mind and willingness to be distracted allows your brain to make connections it would usually struggle to.

Harvard University researcher and psychologist Shelley H. Carson, author of Your Creative Brain, argues, “…a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’’ To put it another way, distractions are excellent for mining new ideas; focus is required for execution.

So next time you’re out running, tune out of the world to let your mind roam free. You’ll be amazed where it can take you.

💌 Inspiring Run Stories.. in Your Inbox

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#3 Run the Path to Happiness

Parkrun runners set off in Norwich, UK

Running events such as Parkrun bring a wealth of mental health benefits

I’m so pleased the mental health benefits of running are now being talked about so openly.

When you run, your body releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

These chemicals play an essential role in creating the feel-good sensation known as “runner’s high.”

Endorphins act as natural painkillers, reducing discomfort and allowing you to push through physical barriers over many miles.

Dopamine and serotonin are more responsible for regulating mood, enhancing feelings of happiness and optimism. Both key components of getting your creative juices flowing.

And as you run more frequently, your brain associates this physiological response with the activity, increasing your desire to run more often.

It’s no wonder running is so addictive!

#4 Running to Remember Memories

You might be jogging on autopilot, but it’s a great source of brainfood.

Regular runs increase the size of your hippocampus – a brain area which plays a critical role in memory. It also might slow the shrinking of your hippocampus that can lead to memory loss as you get older.

The onset of effects of aerobic exercise on the brain and behavior is rapid and is increasingly being prescribed by medical professionals to prevent, delay, or treat cognitive decline.

Another study by the American Academy of Neurology, looked at 206 adults before and after a six-month exercise program. By the end, the participants saw blood flow to the brain increase by 2.3% on average, in turn leading to a 5.7% improvement on executive function tests and 2.4% boost to verbal fluency. 

“Our study showed that six months’ worth of vigorous physical activity may pump blood to regions of the brain that specifically improve your verbal skills as well as memory and mental sharpness,” said study author Marc Poulin.

In other words, staying sharp relies on keeping your body active and in sync with your brain.

#5 Experiment with Moving Meditation

A field full of sheep basking in a beautiful North Yorkshire sunrise over the Howardian Hills
Taking myself on an awe walk at Kirkham Priory

Every run in the great outdoors is full of life-affirming sights and emotions. Stopping us in our tracks to offer a glimpse of a meaning greater than ourselves.

It’s entirely possible to meditate when running and bring more active energy to your meditation practice.

Great things happen when we intentionally shift our attention outward instead of inward.

You begin to enjoy a deeper connection with your surroundings and understand your role as a participant in a larger story. Every mile seemingly richer in minor thrills waiting to be discovered – be they in nature, wildlife or a beautiful vista.

Why is this important for creativity? Because it’s not only about ideas, but new perspectives and the expression of ideas. Being present helps on many fronts.

One such experiment measured the impact of outdoor exercise (“Awe Walks“) on mood, perspective, and a whole host of other mental health benefits.

A Nighttime Jog Along the Porto Waterfront, Illuminated by Street Lights
A Night Jog Along Porto’s River Douro

In the study, people who looked up and paid attention to beautiful objects, happenings, and landscapes on walks felt more energized and joyous as a result. Attention would be shifted from participants’ inner toils, or “small self”, to the wonders of the outside world, such as epic sunsets on runs. All from one 15-minute stroll per week.

The awe walkers, like the control group, were asked to document their walks with selfies. The only difference being an additional instruction for the awe walkers to capture awe-inspiring backdrops. After each walk both groups would record their mood.

After eight weeks, the scientists compared the groups’ responses and photos.

Unsurprisingly, they found that the awe walkers became more attuned at discovering and articulating awe. They also developed a hunger for awe as they would embark on walks with fresh, childlike eyes. Wellbeing too, improved. The awe walkers reporting lower stress levels and physical pain.

Most strikingly, the researchers noted variance in the two groups’ photos. The awe walkers began to shrink relative to their surroundings. Their selfies less selfish. Seemingly developing a better understanding of the world outside of themselves and better able to express it.

It confirms that everything is illuminated when you run with your eyes open. Helping you to return to your desk inspired and the creative juices flowing.

Related reading: How to Start Trail Running

#6 The Benefits Last Throughout the Day

“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow, as if I had given vent to the stream at the lower end and consequently new fountains flowed into it at the upper.” – Henry David Thoreau

The good news is that these brain-boosting benefits continue long after you’ve finished your run.

Early morning running in the city - finding a cool street in Lisbon

A morning run sets the tone for the day, giving you a sense of accomplishment before anyone else is even awake.

It’s also much easier to apply yourself and find your flow state on the back of a morning workout. Emotional stress bounces off you. The benefits of which extend throughout the day.

To get my grey matter going, I try to a few creative thinking exercises:

  • Exploring (no set agenda, immersing myself in nature)
  • Expanding (listening to inspiring podcasts and audiobooks)
  • Engaging (in a specific question or challenge)

#7 Running Keeps Brain Cells Healthy

Moderate aerobic exercises is a trusted ally in fighting mental fatigue.

Researchers found that slow and steady aerobic exercise can boost neuroplasticity and protect against neurodegeneration. The daily benefits of improved cognition will be borne out in how you:

  • Think
  • Read
  • Write
  • Reason
  • Remember
  • Even sleep quality

In short, being kind to your mind benefits every area of your life, from learning to decision making and communication and creative ideation. Brain fitness can be far more fun than Sudoku puzzles.

Tips for More Inspired Runs

  • Run without music and other distractions
  • Make running more fun with new routes via Strava
  • Take yourself on an ‘awe run’ in nature
  • Write down your ideas on your phone’s note-taking app
  • Take breaks to reflect and take photos
  • Start with a problem statement and let your mind wander
  • Chat things through with a running partner

In Summary: the Many Mental Benefits of Running

The physical and mental health benefits of running start with a single step.

Running is also an unlikely architect of creativity.

To open the floodgates of new ideas, the trick is not to force them. Form a regular running habit and let creativity come to you. Your problems will thank you.

💌 Inspiring Run Stories.. in Your Inbox

Get more from your runs. More joy. Better adventures. Faster times.