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Marathon running could boost your brain and eye health, new research shows

·3-min read
Photo credit: Bobby Ellis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bobby Ellis - Getty Images
  • Marathon running may prime your central nervous system in a way that benefits both your vision and cognition, as well as your heart, new research shows.

  • That’s because the stronger your vascular system, the more efficiently your blood vessels operate.

  • Both training and the actual marathon itself benefits your central nervous system.

If you wear glasses, could running enough marathons let you ditch your corrective lenses? Not exactly—but a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that the way exercise primes the central nervous system could be a boon to your vision, as well as your cognition and your heart.

Researchers compared 100 marathon runners to 46 sedentary people (the control group) over a six-month study period, looking specifically at cognitive ability and the robustness of retinal vasculature—the blood vessels that support eye function. They compared these parameters between the runners and the control group, and also noted how these changed before running a marathon, immediately afterward, and 12 weeks after.

They were looking for indications that running affects the central nervous system in ways that can benefit not just the brain and the eyes through better blood flow, but also the cardiovascular system. And that’s what they found.

'Endurance exercise like running creates vascular adaptations, and that can improve cognitive performance and your vascular system overall,' study co-author Astrid Röh, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics at the University of Augsburg in Germany, told Runner’s World.

Röh said that earlier research had also found that arteries and veins in the retinal region widen during treadmill tests, especially those that last for at least a few hours. In those tests, the retinal advantages remained for nearly three hours after participants stopped running, showing that the vascular system adapts to exercise, and that adaptation lingers after exertion.

The stronger your vascular system, the more efficiently your blood vessels operate. That shows up in lower blood pressure and less aortic stiffness, as well as improved function of retinal veins and arteries, Röh said. Cognitive ability gets a boost from this improvement as well, Röh added. (Most notably, training for a marathon would help prevent an issue like retinal vascular occlusion—a complete or partial blockage of a blood vessel—and reduce the risk of vision difficulties as you age.)

In fact, cognitive decline is often predicted by decreased cerebral blood flow, Röh added, so the ability to keep your vascular system robust can help brain health overall.

What works best? Both training and the actual marathon itself. That’s because regular exercise can lead to vascular adaptation that primes the central nervous system for what’s called 'acute exercise,' which means you push yourself with more intensity, as you would in a marathon.

'This acute event seems to provide additional effects for cognitive improvements and vascular function,' Röh said. 'With our study, we show that a combination of regular, consistent exercise in combination with acute bouts of strenuous exercise is most effective.'

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