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Running helps with depression, is it truth?

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

When a massive black hole settles over your mood, could running actually help?

There is plenty of literature about it and one of them, says that depression ( to make the story short ) is caused by brain chemicals gone haywire, leaving people with that sad feeling, sad enough that they can barely function. They agree that “faulty mood regulation” in brain centers has roots in multiple factors: some of them impossible to change as genetics and degenerative neurological conditions, but others that we have some degree of choice: stress, nutritional deficiencies, unbalanced endocrine system, immune system conditions, medications side effects, and even cancer. An unlucky combination of such could make the sunniest individual experience those debilitating mood swings.

The key to the journey back to good mental health has multiple variants: dietary, lifestyle, pharmaceutical and cardiovascular. Running may be one of them.

Well, many experts think human bodies are shaped the way they are because we are supposed to be extremely effective endurance runners, even if you suffer every time you try to catch the bus.

The shapes of our hips and feet, the length of our legs, our shock-absorbing spinal discs, and our ability to sweat make it possible for us to run mile after mile. ( In future posts we will discuss how to keep "the machine" in good shape )

So it's no surprise then that running is strongly associated with a long list of benefits for our bodies and brains.

As a form of cardio exercise that's easily accessible, running is one of the most straightforward ways to get the important benefits of exercise. Many experts consider exercise to be the closest thing to a "wonder drug" and, it won't be me to deny that.

Since it improves aerobic fitness, running is a great way to help improve cardiovascular health, burn calories and build strength, among other things. But there's also a long list of psychological benefits that runners could achieve and all connected with a better mood and attitude.

Just to name a study from Cambridge University and the US National Institute of Aging, what makes running such a potent cerebral enhancer is its ability to spark neurogenesis: the growth of new brain cells. How it does this is still a mystery. It could be because exercise induces increased blood flow, and limits the production of stress hormones like cortisol, or some combination of reasons. However it happens, running could be a better antidepressant than anything you'll get from a pharmacist.

Depression is linked to reduced neurogenesis, and it's possible that SSRI drugs like Prozac encourage the growth of new brain cells. Recent research on running indicates that it does the same thing, but on an even larger scale and without the infamous side-effects of the drugs, like for example, weight gain.

The study used mice to demonstrate how running triggers the memory centers of the brain.

Neuroscience researchers put one group of mice on a training regimen of running on a wheel for up to 15 miles a day. The other group did nothing but nibble on carrots, wander around their cage, and poop (the rodent comparison to a typical human office job).

Both groups were then periodically put in front of a computer screen showing two identical squares side-by-side. When the mice nudged the left square, they received a sweet reward. When they nudged the right square, they received nothing. In other words, the mice had to remember which square concealed a reward.

The results: the running group scored nearly twice as high on the memory test as the sedentary group. To make it even more interesting, the researchers moved the squares closer and closer until they almost touched, making it harder for the mice to distinguish them. The sedentary mice got steadily worse as the squares got closer, but the running mice continued to figure it out. Researchers even tried to fool the mice by switching the squares in front of them. The running mice still nudged the square they'd been nudging to get the treat far more often than the sedentary mice.

Afterward, brain tissue showed that the running mice had grown brand new grey matter during the experiment. Tissue from the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus linked to new memory formation, showed an average of 6,000 new brain cells per every cubic millimeter, totaling hundreds of thousands of new cells. Not coincidentally, the dentate gyrus is one of the few areas of the adult human brain that can grow new brain cells.

What this and a growing list of research on the topic is telling us is that running and other forms of exercise can do things for the brain we're not even sure the best of modern pharmacology can do. Sometimes hard to believe, but the science is there.

So what to do?

To be honest, getting used to running, if you haven't done it in a while or ever, can be brutal.

But once your body and mind start to acclimate, running can be blissful, meditative, and provide a sense of freedom. As someone who has competed at different levels running is just part of my life but one thing I'll always suggest to anyone who wants to run again o start from scratch, remember that you're running to have fun.

Racing and competition may arrive along the way.

I will post shortly ways to do it safe and fun!

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