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Our Brains on the Run!

It’s old news that moderate to intense exercise is good for our hearts, muscles. skeleton, and lungs. Running is particularly good since it’s weight-bearing and stresses the joints.  Some feel that it creates wear and tear, but the research is clear that a reasonable training load combined with strength-training, regular stretching, adequate recovery, builds cartilage at joint surfaces rather than wearing it away. This is due, in part, to nutrients being drawn into our joint capsules from physical activity.  Otherwise, the avascular (no blood vessels) cartilage is left to fend for itself and it’s not a fair fight.  

But what’s happening above our necks when we run? Does running benefit our brains? The American College of Sports Medicine published a paper in October 2018 entitled Exercise Protective Effects on the Brain. The article noted that without consistent, moderately intense exercise, there is a body-wide increase in low-grade inflammation as we age. There are several mechanisms in play, but one key effect is that inflammation reduces circulation to the brain, which in turn results in brain cell death. This is, essentially, brain aging, and we don’t have to wait to get into our later years for this to happen. It can begin early in adult life.

While the brain only accounts for 2% of our body weight, it uses about 25% of our energy.  However, unlike muscles it has no energy reserves – it draws in real time! So, it’s no surprise that elevating our heart rate results in more blood flowing to the brain. No wonder we can have eureka moments while on the run! Without regular exercise, the data indicates over time total brain size decreases, in particular the hippocampus, the site of memory function.  

The good news is that research shows vigorous exercise, (with running near the top of the list!) can mitigate, reverse, and at least hold at bay brain cell loss. In addition, there is strong evidence that vigorous exercise helps us sleep better while increasing memory, attention, and overall executive function.

We probably don’t really need more reasons to run than we already have.  Most of us feel the intrinsic benefits in our daily lives, but it doesn’t hurt to know there are clinical reasons why we feel good, not only when we run but also in the hours that follow. If our brain could talk (and maybe it does to some of us!) it might thank us for taking it along on those heady runs!