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Want a Stronger Brain? Lace Up Your Running Shoes

Beth Bradford

May 26, 2023

It's no secret that running is an excellent workout for your body, but did you know it can also improve your brain health as you age?

As we enter midlife, our brains may begin to show signs of decline and aging. I know I'm seeing some of my memory decline as I forget people's names (I ALWAYS remembered people's names). However, recent research has shown that incorporating running into our daily routine can help keep our minds sharp and healthy.

A 2023 study in eNeuro began with the premise that running (in mice) increases the neurons in the dentate gyrus (DG) in the hippocampus of the brain. This area is associated with neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change) and memory function. The question is–how might running in the long term maintain the brain’s internal wiring?

The researchers labeled the generation of these DG neurons in two-month-old mice and split them into sedentary and running groups. Six months later when the mice were considered “middle age,” the researchers studied the circuitry of their brains to see if these DG neurons maintained their connectivity. Compared to the sedentary mice, the running mice maintained these DG neurons and helped reshape their brain’s network. 

The study’s implications are that long-term running helps these neurons stay alive and also changes the way they connect with other neurons in the brain, which can help prevent age-related decline in memory function. Running promotes the recruitment of synaptic inputs to adult-born neurons from various parts of the brain. In runners, there are also changes in the way that adult-born neurons connect with other neurons.

“Long-term running may enhance pattern separation ability, our ability to distinguish between highly similar events and stimuli, a behavior closely linked to adult neurogenesis, which is among the first to display deficits indicative of age-related memory decline,” said Carmen Vivar, Ph.D., corresponding author, Department of Physiology, Biophysics and Neuroscience, Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN in Mexico in a news release.

Now, of course this study was conducted on mice, so it's difficult to know how this might translate to humans. And although mice probably can't ride a bike or do a HIIT workout, this study can't determine if it's specifically running or exercise in general that provides brain benefits.

“Our study provides insight as to how chronic exercise, beginning in young adulthood and continuing throughout middle age, helps maintain memory function during aging, emphasizing the relevance of including exercise in our daily lives,” Vivar said.

In conclusion, long-term running can help you live longer by improving the survival of neurons born during early adulthood in the dorsal hippocampus. Adult-born neurons are important for memory and can change depending on experiences. Running helps these neurons stay alive and also changes the way they connect with other neurons in the brain. Running can help adult-born neurons maintain their connections, which can help prevent age-related decline in memory function.

Get Started with Running

Even if you weren't a runner when you were younger (I didn't start until I was 30), you can enjoy the benefits of running now. Of course, you'll need to get clearance from your doctor first before starting any exercise program. Sometimes a good running program starts with a great walking program!

You'll first need to start with good footwear. A good running store can take a look at your stride and your posture to find the right type of shoes for you. I made the mistake of buying clearance shoes from the Nike outlet and wondered why my feet were so freaking sore.

If you haven't been exercising for a while, it's best not to run full out the first time. Instead, start with walking to get your feet used to exercising again. There's no shame in walking.

As I get older, I also need to do a dynamic warm-up to get the stickiness out of my muscles and joints (particularly in the morning). I'll often do some spinal twists, some air squats or jump squats, or hopping on each foot to help get me started on a run. I also love The Myrtl Routine, which is a dynamic way of increasing the range of motion in your hips. Of course, you can't do this if you're already outside on a running path because it starts on the floor. Avoid static stretches before a run, especially if your muscles are cold.

Start running slowly to gradually get your heart rate up. Notice your posture when you run. Your shoulders should be relaxed and your chest broad (so you can breathe). Also, notice whether you're leaning to one side or favoring one foot. Listen to your footsteps to see if both feet are making the same noise when they make contact with the ground.

I don't want to tell you if you should plant your whole foot with each stride or if you should stay on your midfoot because that's going to depend on your running speed. However, one cue I like to keep in mind is to imagine you're scraping mud off the bottom of your feet. That will keep you from slamming your foot down.

Even if you're used to a hardcore spin class, it doesn't mean you should go all out for 45 minutes on a run. It will take time for your feet and shins to adjust to running. A good start will be 15 or 20 minutes at first, and gradually add minutes if your body feels ok.

Remember that it's ok to walk and run. It could start with 20 seconds of running and two minutes of walking and gradually build from there. Also, don't be concerned with speed or distance at first. Each day brings something different to your run, so it's best to avoid being concerned about nailing a certain pace at first. Eventually, you can work up to a few speed bursts, but give yourself a few months for your body to get adjusted.

Running might feel addicting at first, but avoid running every day if you're just starting out. You can work towards running every day after your body accepts your exercise.

After a solid workout, spend a few moments cooling your body down. I'll often walk for a few minutes then come inside for some slow, static stretches. If your hips are tight, you can try this 10-minute hip release to calm your body and mind.

Need motivation? Find a running community or sign up for a 5K. Don't do what I did and sign up for a marathon before doing a 5K. Although I'm happy that I did the marathon, I endured a ton of injuries along the way.

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