Can Knitting Give You a Runner’s High?

Tamara Grand by Tamara Grand | July 9th, 2012 | 22 Comments
topic: Fitness, Health & Wellness

Knitting and Exercise

At first glance, crafting and exercise would seem to have little in common. One involves moving your body to improve health and fitness, the other moving your hands to create with paper, needles, paint or yarn.

Yet both activities have important, complementary effects on mood and cognitive function.

They make you feel better and enhance your ability to learn new concepts and tasks. They help to ward off depression and delay the onset of age-related memory loss. And they mitigate stress and facilitate better sleep.

How? Via their immediate effects on neurotransmitters (the chemicals that allow your body and brain to communicate) and the longer-term changes they induce in brain structure and anatomy.

The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, and your stomach to digest. Neurotransmitters affect mood, sleep and concentration and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Three of the most important mood-related neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine and the endorphins.

  • Serotonin regulates mood, appetite and sleep. It has several cognitive functions; low levels of serotonin inhibit memory and learning and are associated with depression.
  • Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system responsible for reward-driven learning. It encourages us to keep performing behaviors that make us feel good. Too little and memory, attention and problem-solving abilities suffer.
  • Endorphins have an opiate-like effect. They mask feelings of pain and create a feeling of relaxation and overall well being.

Evidence suggests that all three are produced in response to both physical activity (exercise) and repetitive spatial-motor tasks (like knitting and other handicrafts).

Exercise for your brain

Runners frequently speak of the ‘high’ they experience while running — a feeling of elevated mood that allows them to run longer, despite discomfort or even pain. ‘Runner’s high’ is thought to be caused by the brain’s release of several ‘feel good’ hormones, including serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and even endocannabinoids (cannabis-like hormones produced naturally in the body).

And recent evidence demonstrates that regular exercise can improve your ability to learn new tasks (“How do I program the DVR?”), reduce the short-term memory loss associated with aging (‘Where did I put my keys?”) and help with ‘executive function’ tasks including scheduling, planning and multi-tasking (Simultaneously packing lunches, signing permission forms and talking to the bank? No problem!).

How? By inducing your brain to lengthen its axons, create more dendrites and improve its internal networking pathways. That’s right, over time, exercise can dramatically change the structure of your brain.

Craft for your health

Knitters and other crafters often describe the state they experience while engaged in their art as ‘meditative’ or deeply relaxing. Some even refer to knitting as “the new yoga.” Studies of the brain waves of people immersed in repetitive spatial-motor tasks show remarkable similarities to those engaged in deep meditation, an activity known to stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin.

Like meditation, repetitive spatial-motor tasks not only stimulate the brain’s reward system, they also promote relaxation and counter-act the negative health consequences of stress hormones.

How? By increasing activity and cerebral blood flow in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with positive mood and feelings of general well-being. Interestingly, research has shown that solving puzzles (crosswords, Sudoku) and participating in activities that require the translation of codes and symbols (lace and cable knitting; paint by numbers) can also activate the left prefrontal cortex.

Over time, elevated prefrontal cortex activity results in lowered anxiety and an improved response to environmental stressors.

So, while there’s still lots of research to be done, the new prescription for improved mood and brain health would seem to include exercise and crafting.

One caveat? Don’t try to do both simultaneously. It’s difficult (and potentially dangerous) to operate an elliptical machine while knitting!

Sources:

1.  Gutman, S.A. and Schindler, V.P. 2007. “The neurological basis of occupation” Occupational Therapy International 14(2): 71-85.

2.  Hillman, C.H., et al. 2008. “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition” Nature Reviews in Neuroscience.

3.  Raichlen, David A., et al. 2012. “Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’” Journal of Experimental Biology.

4.  van Praag, H. 2009. “Exercise and the brain: something to chew on” Trends in Neurosciences 32(5): 283-290.

5. Young, Simon N. 2007. “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs” Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

Comments

  1. I used to crochet and craft regularly, and I can remember the calming effect it had on me. Then somehow life, work,kids, just stuff in general got in the way. One of the reasons I returned to yoga recently was to help me deal with stress. Maybe I should pick up my crochet hook too!

    Debbie | July 9th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. Very interesting. I used to knit in college but have forgotten how. Going to a class is on my list of things to do when my nest is empty this fall. Until then, I’ll just have to keep running!

    Coco | July 9th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  3. Thank you so much for all of this information! This was a great post! I will take your advice and not knit while on the elliptical ;) (Have you seen me knit?! lol)

    Kierston | July 9th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  4. I love this Tamara! Finding ways to calm the mind & soul – PLUS you get some beautiful items for yourself, family & friends! :-)

    Your last comment cracked me up! I am sweating so bad I could not even begin to think about doing anything else beyond listen to music or TRY to watch the gym tv while I go art my cardio! :-)

    Jody - Fit at 54 | July 9th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  5. Very interesting! I do think knitting can be a form of meditation. It is a very calming activity.

    However, I actually saw on woman knitting on the treadmill at a gym I once worked at. She was doing very well and looked quite “euphoric” but I had to stop her for safety sake! ;-)

  6. I had never thought about the therapeutic side of crafting! While I don’t knit I do tackle DIY projects when I am stressed to help relieve that. Great post!

  7. I love repetitive tasks for the two reasons…it’s busy and, as you mentioned, rewarding. Vacuuming is a chore I LOVE to do…simply because it’s actually relaxing to me and because you can see the clean happening. Running is the same way…I pretty much, on a regular basis, see changes occurring. Great post. :) (I never would have thought to link knitting & running, but now I get it. Haha.)

  8. Thanks for all the great comments!

    I have seen people knitting on the treadmill and elliptical before too. And if you google knitting and exercise images you won’t believe what you find.

    Not only is it dangerous, it’s also counterproductive. You can’t exercise at a high enough intensity to experience the good endorphins and you can’t concentrate on knitting hard enough to get the meditative effect.

    One of the many times multi-tasking is just a bad idea!

    Tamara | July 10th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  9. People. Knit. On. The. Treadmill?
    I can barely treadmill.
    Great post. So creative.

    MizCarla | July 11th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  10. Darn (and knit) but you are one smart cookie! No danger of me running while knitting, but I might needle people when I’m on the elliptical! Great interweaving of two seemingly disparate subjects. I love all this info on brain/ body interconnectedness. More Please!

    KymberlyFunFit | July 11th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  11. Knitting, Yoga and Friends – those are the three things that keep me sane and healthy and going strong!

    Mermaid3011 | July 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  12. Actually walking and knitting socks is quite common. They even make special yarn bags with a strap for your wrist or belt. You have that long stretch that is all the same until you need to turn the heel. If you have been knitting for any time you knit without looking, for the most part. Safer than all those people walking and texting.

    Diane | February 17th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  13. I KNEW it! My g-grandma lived to be 105 and she crocheted all the time. Her short- term memory wasn’t the best, but I heard her recite a very long poem once when she was about 100 years old.

    Dana | February 18th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  14. A guy told me once his mom knit while driving. Every time she came to a red light, she would pick up her knitting needles. This is not something I would recommend.

    Dana | February 18th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  15. As an avid knitter, I can attest to the great mind exercising it is. Knitting long stretches of pain stitches is calming. Working a complex cable or stranded colorwork design fully engages the focus like a mantra. All good! I try to knit everyday.

    Compassion and non-attachment can be cultivated through charity knitting. I contribute dozens of socks, hats and vests through Wool-Aid each year.

    For exercising while knitting, I’d suggest a recumbent bicycle or elliptical!

    Hey Gaiam – how about some great Knitting Gear and videos!

    Kathy Partridge | February 19th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  16. When I was going thru chemo for breast cancer, my doctor told me that knitting/crocheting was as good as going to a support group. 25 years later, I believe her.

    Donna | February 19th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  17. I always knew that knitting was good for you… now, on to the important stuff — what pattern is being knit in the photo above and what yarn is being used?? Inquiring minds want to know what this beautiful creation is!!

    Patty | February 20th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  18. If I could knit while on the elliptical, I would exercise a lot more!!

    Evelyn Neal | February 20th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  19. What pattern you are knitting and what yarn is that?

    Alli | February 21st, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  20. Hi there,
    Could the Sunflower Knitters Guild have permission to reprint your article in our monthly newsletter? We are a charitable organization, and your article would accompany a pattern of winged baby socks. Our website is: http://www.sunflowerknittersguild.org/.
    Feel free to back channel me, if you would like. marysknitting@aol.com
    Thanks.

    Smiles,
    Mary Gregerson
    Editor, Newsletter
    Sunflower Knitters Guild

    Mary Gregerson | April 12th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  21. I have managed to crochet hats while walking. Wear a zip up something, stuff the yarn in and pull it out as you go.

    chdavis | October 25th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  22. Well, actually, I do knit and run simultaneously. They do go together quite well. My regular training for the marathon was 10 minute miles for 9 miles while knitting. I just recently broke the record, doing a 12 foot scarf during the KC marathon. Check out my website: donotstaple.com

    David Babcock | November 1st, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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