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Shaking off that groggy feeling when you wake up in the morning sometimes seems impossible. While many people reach for a cup of coffee to get past their morning sleepiness, a run accomplishes the same effect without the potential side effects of caffeine. Enhanced blood flow and brain stimulation are the primary mechanisms by which a morning run will leave you feeling alert and invigorated.
Increased Blood Flow
During sleep, your brain activity and metabolism slow. The gradual increase in alertness that follows awakening requires increased metabolic activity in your brain cells. Going for a morning run helps boost your mental focus and alertness by increasing blood flow to your brain. Your heart beats faster and harder as you run, delivering the oxygen and sugar your brain needs for the increased metabolic rate that accompanies wakefulness.
Body movement stimulates the brain and vice versa. Running stimulates numerous brain processes, including those that control your heart rate, breathing, muscle movement, balance and coordination. Your state of alertness heightens due to the release of high levels of signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters and an associated increase in brain electrical activity. This is why people avoid running close to their bedtime; the nervous system stimulation associated with intense physical activity can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Enhanced Mental Performance
Running and other forms of aerobic exercise affect your brain function in specific ways that contribute to your state of alertness and mental performance. In a 2009 article published in the journal "Psychosomatic Medicine," Duke neuroscience graduate student Patrick Smith and colleagues reported that aerobic exercise among adults of all ages improves attention, mental processing speed, memory and other high-level thought processes, such as strategizing, planning and organizing. A 2008 article published in the "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews" reported similar findings among older adults, with improvements in memory, mental processing speed and attention to visual and auditory cues.
Running regularly in the morning to help you wake up affords you brain benefits beyond casting off sleepiness. Improved mental performance endures in both younger and older adults with ongoing aerobic exercise. This occurs, in part, because aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of blood vessels in the brain, which improves the delivery of needed oxygen and sugar. Among older adults, exercise has also been shown to preserve brain cells that might otherwise be lost to the aging process. And all of this is in addition to the beneficial effects aerobic exercise confers on your heart, lungs, bones, muscles and mental health.