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By Paige Montgomery

From distance runners to recovering ICU patients, recent research suggests there are significant cognitive benefits for those who get up and move.


What drives a person to run 26.2 miles? Ask any serious runner and they’ll tell you their race started long before they arrived at the marathon start line. As the runners wait for the start call to sound, look for the hard-earned muscle lining their calves — definition carved out mile after mile in preparation for this one day. After training through scorching summer days and biting winter mornings, they stand, ready to sweat and ache and gasp once more.

Just as no two runners or training regimens are exactly alike, the factors that motivate marathon runners vary widely as well. Benjamin Ogles, dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences and professor of psychology, investigated the motivations of marathon runners with Professor Kevin Masters of the University of Colorado, Denver, hoping to understand the drive of these determined long-distance runners.“ It started with a dissertation that was done by Kevin Masters here at BYU,” Ogles explained. “As part of his study, he decided to ask the runners the reasons for their participation in a marathon. His original study was about hypnotic-like states in running, but after his dissertation we decided to continue looking at motives for running a marathon.”

To discover the driving force behind marathon runners, Ogles and Masters developed an instrument they could use to standardize the assessment of runners’ motives — the Motivations of Marathoners Scales (MOMS). After compiling responses from previous studies and cataloging new responses, they developed subscales with which to organize the feedback. The research revealed not only that people run marathons for a variety of reasons — physical health, recognition, personal goal achievement — but also that many of the respondents were motivated in part by perceived psychological benefits. Respondents attributed decreased anxiety, improved self-esteem and mood, and a heightened sense of life purpose to running.

Far from imaginary, these cognitive and psychological benefits are grounded in science, as Ramona Hopkins, professor of psychology, described in a recent review article on the effects of physical activity on the brain — and they occur after participating in a variety of activities.1 As the body becomes active, more blood and oxygen are delivered to the brain, increasing brain activity.

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As brain stimulation increases, so does cognitive function, resulting in several beneficial outcomes. “Physical activity and exercise stimulate many things in the brain,” Hopkins explained. “They reduce inflammatory markers, increase neurogenesis, and increase neurotransmitters. Movement increases oxygen and glucose delivery to the neurons, subsequently improving neuronal function in the brain, and improves cognitive function such as memory and attention as well.”

Not everyone is cut out to be a marathon runner, or even wants to be. But according to Hopkins, this level of extreme physical exertion is not necessary to reap the cognitive benefits of exercise. Research shows that even a moderate regimen can improve cognitive function. “Some of the studies that show benefits include walking three times a week for 30 minutes, which has shown to be beneficial in aging and slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” Hopkins noted.2 “A study in older women in which they wore an ‘actigraph’ watch that measures movement found the women who moved more in their daily lives had better cognitive function than women who moved less.”3 While there is still no definite answer as to the amount of exercise required to support optimal cognitive function, research points to the idea that the most effective activities are likely aerobic, and data suggest that something as simple as a regular morning walk may be sufficient to improve brain health and cognitive function.

Perhaps more students and scholars would step out for a morning jog or walk if they understood physical activity’s impact on cognition. “Exercise is good for your brain, so if you exercise you think better and you’re cognitively sharp,” Hopkins said. “Exercise improves memory, it improves your ability to pay attention and focus, and it seems to improve your ability to think quickly — all of which can improve your ability to make decisions.” These effects aren’t just for the young and fit — in older individuals, research shows physical activity may slow the onset of dementia and other degenerative brain diseases.

Brain 5.pngExercise can also be a simple and potent treatment for depression. Hopkins referenced research showing that physical activity not only improves cognition, but also improves depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.4 A study investigated the effect of exercise on depression through a comparison of three groups: one that solely exercised, one that solely took antidepressant medication and one that did both. “The group with exercise had improvement in their depression similar to the groups that got antidepressants,” Hopkins said. “When you combined the two treatments, it didn’t have an additive effect — so it appears that exercise improves mood to a similar degree as antidepressant medication does.”

Despite the cognitive benefits of regular exercise, Hopkins said many clinical care providers recommend a “multi-pronged approach” for depressed patients including psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants, as well as exercise. Even for individuals who don’t suffer from depression, exercise can turn around a sour mood — an effect scientists hypothesize is related to increased neurotransmitter levels and other biochemical effects in the brain.

For some, physical activity is more than a quest to sharpen the wits or carve the calve muscles — it’s a critical step on the path to recovering from brain injury and returning to normal life. “Many individuals who survive intensive care leave the hospital, but they have significant physical and cognitive impairments and psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder,” Hopkins said. Hopkins cited current data that shows only half of individuals who were employed before being admitted into an ICU have successfully returned to work 12 months later. “We are trying to find some ways to reduce the post-ICU morbidities and given what we know in other populations — such as dementia, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — physical exercise or activity improves cognitive function, so we are hopeful it will do the same in survivors of critical illness.”

Young or old, healthy or recovering, science supports the indication that exercise impacts our mood and our ability to think. While marathon runners may be some of the first to note the cognitive benefits of physical activity, it doesn’t take an extreme feat to experience the effects.

Dean Ogles views his morning jog as a habit that positively impacts him both physically and mentally. “If I get up and go for a run at six in the morning, no matter how the day goes, I can always say at the end of the day, I did one good thing for myself,” Ogles said. “If it’s painful while I’m running, it just seems refreshing after. That is very much a motivation for me because I accomplished this one thing — I felt good after. It keeps me going.” Whatever your physical activity of choice may be, block out the time, get moving, and enjoy a heightened mood, a quicker wit, and a strengthened memory for years to come.

1 Hopkins R.O., Suchyta M.R., Farrer T.J., & Needham D.M. (2012). Improving post-ICU neuropsychiatric outcomes: Understanding the cognitive effects of physical activity. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 186(12), 1220- 1228.

2 Heyn P., Abreu B.C., Ottenbacher K.J. (2004). The effects of exercise training on elderly persons with cognitive impairment and dementia: a meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil, 85(10), 1694-1704.

3 Barnes D.E., Blackwell T., Stone K.L., Goldman S.E., Hillier T., Yaffe K. (2008). Cognition in older women: the importance of daytime movement. J Am Geriatr Soc, 56(9), 1658-1664.

4 Babyak M et al. (2000) Exercise Treatment for Major Depression: Maintenance of Therapeutic Benefit at 10 Months. Psychomatic Medicine, 62(5), 633-638.