Run for your Brain, Run for your Life!

Posted by Firas Abdallah on 4/14/2019 to News

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Many people dread running. They think of it as a repetitive and meaningless process of misery. They would much rather play a sport that involves periods of running, such as football, basketball… It’s true that running is repetitive and mostly meaningless. But is that really a recipe for misery or is the opposite true?!  In a world where everything we do is a means to an end, isn’t it a relief to take just a little time every week and do something just for the sake of doing it?

In the words of Reynold Price, “One of the luckiest things that can happen to a writer is the gradual acquisition of the sense that one is doing it just for the sake of doing it, that it’s become a kind of lonely long-distance running which nonetheless has its own huge rewards.” Price is not the only writer who seemingly turned running into a spiritual practice. Haruki Murakami also perfectly put into words what many runners joyfully experience when they run in his famous saying: “When I am running my mind empties itself. Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like gusts of wind – they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing.”

But let’s leave romanticism at the door for a moment and look at how running can tangibly benefit you. I am going to start with the less known benefits of running which have popped up in scientific literature in recent years. A 2010 study by researchers from Cambridge University on mice has shown that mice who had unlimited access to a running wheel (averaging 15 miles per day) had demonstrated increased performance in a spatial pattern memory test when compared with more sedentary control mice. Brain tissue taken from the rodents also showed that running mice had grown fresh grey matter during the experiment (6000 new brain cells per cubic millimetre in the hippocampus).

A similar study by researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland indicated that only sustained aerobic exercise improved hippocampal neurogenesis in adult animals. HIT effects were minor and resistance training showed no such effect. Despite the fact that pretty much all exercise seems to be healthy, there seems to be added benefits for brain health by choosing to run. As for the reason why, Dr. Nokia, the researcher who led this study, speculates that long-distance running stimulates the production of a particular substance in the brain known as B.D.N.F (brain derived neurotrophic factor) that is known to regulate neurogenesis.

We cannot make definite conclusions applicable to humans from the above studies because it’s still technologically very difficult to study neurogenesis in living human beings. However, humans and mice share 90% of the genes that are responsible for controlling the inner workings of the brain. Therefore, enormous amounts of money have been pledged towards the further understanding of the mouse brain.

Even though there are no neurogenesis studies on human beings, there have been other types of studies on human beings which greatly increase the likelihood that the neurogenesis conclusion from the “mice and rats” experiments is indeed applicable to humans! This study from the “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” found out that those who run at least 15.3 miles per week experienced a 40% reduction in Alzheimer’s mortality (The study involved 153,000 participants) So there seems to be consistent evidence that running greatly benefits the brain.

Running is also amazingly beneficial to your body. It is well-known that running helps stave off type-2 diabetes, blood pressure, high cholesterol, strokes, and maintain the elasticity and function of blood vessels. I won’t go into too much detail on running’s benefits to the body as a great deal of it is common knowledge and there is a lot of information on it already out on the internet. One thing I want to point out is that type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure are two major risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. So even while benefiting your body by running, you’re are also indirectly benefiting your brain’s long-term health.

By now I am hoping I have totally sold you on running. So, let’s get practical. How often should you run to reap the full benefits of running? How much is too much? How much is too little? I am going to start off by saying there really is no right and wrong here, and everything I write in trying to answer these questions should be treated more like guidelines than rules.

As an answer, I will share my own running schedule and explain the reasoning behind it. I run three times a week, on non-consecutive days, covering 5 miles in each run, at a steady pace of 9 minutes/mile, which equals to about 45 minutes per run. According to Karen Postal, President of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, “if you are exercising (referring to aerobic exercise) so that you sweat – about 30 to 40 minutes – new brain cells are being born.”  So, I have the neurogenesis part covered. Another benchmark through which I know I am covering enough miles is the 15 miles threshold which led to a 40% reduction in Alzheimer’s mortality in the study previously mentioned in this article.

 Using this training regimen, I am also making sure I don’t over-train. This study suggests that jogging 3 times a week, for no more than 48 minutes each time is best for you, and that anything more is unnecessary at best and harmful at worst. I personally don’t really buy it, as I have found quite a few critics for the statistical methods used in this study, but since I am pretty sure I am covering enough to get the maximum brain benefit, I don’t mind using this safety guideline. It’s also beneficial to give your body time to rest and recover as this will ensure you don’t over-train and will also decrease the risk of injury.

As for how I warm-up, it’s actually very simple. Since all my runs count as “easy & long”, I just walk-jog for 1 mile before every run. I start with easy-walking for the first 1/3 of the mile, switch to fast walking for the 2nd 1/3 of the mile, and jog lightly for the last 1/3 of the mile. The whole process takes about 12-15 minutes. I realise this will draw it criticisms, and they would mostly be right, but I was never much of a stretcher!

By now you should know everything there is to know about running, unless you are planning on writing a dissertation on the topic… So, enough reading for today. Put your running shoes on and get out there!

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