Gotta Run: Mental benefits from sticking to exercise resolutions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 31, 2022

It’s that time of year again! Look around you where many of your neighbors and friends are about to attempt major changes in their lifestyle, but will those changes last? And are their reasons good ones?

Resolution time is here. All the gyms and the YMCA will get very busy. For the next month and maybe two, its going to be hard to get your favorite piece of exercise equipment. Weight loss and a better diet usually lead the list of resolutions. Americans retain an average weight gain of 2-4 pounds per year during holiday season. Multiply that by 30 years and the total is very significant, often driving the rush to the most popular resolutions.

I heard this morning that 57 percent of people who make resolutions don’t even believe themselves that they can have long-term success. Ester Marsh wrote a wonderful column two weeks ago about starting small and then followed up by saying that initial exercise doesn’t have to hurt.

Here are a few thoughts worth considering on the benefits of exercise and are common discussion topics among long-term exercisers. The mental aspect of regular sustained exercise is the real reason that I chase my daily workout. Early on, I didn’t understand why I felt better when active, but I knew without a doubt that it was true.

A common thread stated by Jerry Kanipe, a long-time local runner, is this: “We are better people because we run. My wife knows when I need to go for a run.” After a good workout, we feel lighter and better prepared to handle whatever stress comes along. I believe the good things start working in the brain when we separate ourselves from a certain situation for a little while.

Known for a long time that body chemicals called endorphins help to reduce pain and enhance muscle performance, they now seem likely to have little to do with what is going on in your head. According to David Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, those endorphins can’t cross the brain barrier. He suggests that endocannabinoids, a group of neurotransmitters that travel in and around the brain, really deserve the credit.

Endocannabinoids have the incredible ability to reduce feelings of anxiety and encourage calm. As you likely guessed, endocannabinoids are produced in higher-than-normal concentrations during your runs or intense exercise. While you’re out running, these special chemicals are actively at work. According to researchers from the University of Maryland, regular exercise can actually rewire the way your brain reacts to stressful situations and make you better prepared to handle these challenges in the long term. What’s more, a study published in Health Psychology examined the emotional stability of over 2,000 American adults and compared it with their level of activity. In short, the researchers wanted to see how regular exercise impacted how people dealt with stress. Not a surprise, the team found that individuals who were regularly active had greater emotional stability and were more likely to maintain a positive viewpoint even during stressful events.

As Professor Linden notes, “Exercise has a dramatic anti-depressive effect. It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.” Overwhelmingly, the runners felt more confident in social situations, had a greater sense of accomplishment, slept better and were able to focus more on their work. Confidence and sense of satisfaction grow, furthering the mental health benefits of running.

Finally, there is some solid evidence to suggest that intense exercise can actually make your brain an even more incredible thinking machine than it already is. In fact, numerous studies, including research from the American Physiological Society, have shown that exercise stimulates an impressive-sounding process known as neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells.

Running and sweat producing exercise literally make your brain grow. This growth has been most noticeable in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. As a result, running has been shown to improve memory, focus, and creative thinking while even slowing cognitive decline.

So, stick with those exercise producing resolutions and extra benefits are just ahead.

Monday’s Bradshaw Financial Planning Resolution Run 5K at The Forum is intended to get your exercise off to a great start for 2023. Runners and walkers are welcome, even if you’ve never done one before. You don’t have to be fast! A low-key and fun event benefitting Rowan Helping Ministries, donations, including food and used running shoes, will be accepted.

Look for this and more upcoming events at