Our minds are miraculously resilient, continually working to expand their capacity, and ward off cognitive decline. To nurture this process takes establishing healthy habits; consuming certain foods and beverages is one way, but the most important means of supporting the brain is by incorporating neuroactive exercise. This is the kind of heart pumping, muscle challenging, movement that requires the brain’s full attention.
To learn how running can aid in maintaining optimum brain health we spoke with Gilly Davy, an Auckland based Neurological Physiotherapist and an expert at helping those suffering from degenerative neurological disease and brain injury. Her work is focused on prescribing movement as medicine. She shared with us her insight on axon dieback which is the loss of brain mass - a key problem to address in decelerating cognitive decline.
“From the age of 25 everyone’s brain is degenerating. And it’s regular, moderate to vigorous exercise that helps maintain brain mass and slowdown axon dieback. Movement is key in helping to delay brain degeneration.”
The main player in combating axon dieback is a powerful process called neuroplasticity - the brain’s amazing ability to evolve by forming new neurons, or brain cells, and establish new pathways in response to life experiences. Building a brain rich in neuroplasticity is the best way to ensure a healthy head throughout life. We covered more on this topic in Running and the Brain, part one in this three part series.
The science behind the miracle of neuroplasticity is still young with limitless discoveries yet to be made, but it’s thought running activates the release of hormones and increased blood flow to forge new cell growth. Areas of the brain critical to memory, like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, have even been found to be larger in runners!
How Exercise Helps an Aging Brain
“If you look at the current aging population, it's suffering from significant rates of Alzheimer's, dementia, and age-related cognitive decline. Are we more subjected to these diseases or conditions, or is it a result of our lifestyles? If you look at 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s age groups and see how inactive they are compared to forty or fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago - the population lead such inactivity in life now. This increase in conditions, what are they really due to, sedentary lifestyles?”
Progression of degenerative brain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and dementia can be slowed down and reduced by cardiovascular exercise and running is an excellent form of just that. Regular running is a top contributing factor to slowing age-related decline and brain degeneration throughout aging.
Gilly stated the evidence exists, “Scientifically the bonus of getting out of breath when you run, does not only help your heart, lungs, muscles etc it actually reduces brain cell loss that occurs with aging. We call this neuroprotection. But while the progression of these neurodegenerative conditions can be slowed down, they can’t be entirely stopped or cured.” In her work she sees first hand the improvements patients can experience with regular exercise, providing a better quality of life.
Gilly Davy shared her top tips for boosting brainpower and overall health & wellbeing:
- Exercise is non-negotiable for maintaining brain health, but specifically the vigorous kind. Strive to move at 70-90% of your predicted heart rate max to create changes in the brain.
- Not all exercise is created equal, to get neurological benefits, the activity needs to be neuroactive. Involving big forceful motions and high intensity activates the brain’s ability to strengthen and protect itself.
- If you’re not getting out of breath you’re not protecting your brain or reaping the rewards in the biggest ways possible.
- In aging generations, Gilly finds a lot of exercise avoidance tends to come from fear. Society unfortunately often views those in higher age groups like they shouldn't be exerting themselves to the point of huffing and puffing, causing fear and stigma. But yet everyone, regardless of age, should strive to puff and pant out of breath 3-4 times per week.
- 3 sets of 30 seconds above a jogging level are all it takes Gilly says. Where the brain benefits are most gained is through faster running, sprints or fartlek.
- Another fun fact, aging runners tend to become even more steady on their feet. Reaping running rewards in the form of better balance and stability during daily activities.
Learn more on how our mind benefits from being a runner in our article on Running and the Brain and read the Sound Mind Sound Body interview with Gilly Davy.
If you’re new to running and not sure how to get started, visit our Knowledge Base where we provide resources on how to become a runner and select the right running shoes for you.