The brain is continually working on expanding its capacity, and warding off cognitive decline, making our minds miraculously resilient. Establishing healthy habits helps to nurture this process with the most important means of supporting the brain being incorporating neuroactive exercise. Not just any form of exercise, but those requiring the brain’s full attention. The kind that gets the heart pumping and challenges muscles in big ways with big movements.

To understand the facts on how running aids in maintaining optimal brain health, we spoke with Gilly Davy, an Auckland based Neurological Physiotherapist and expert at helping individuals suffering from degenerative neurological disease and brain injury. Gilly’s focus is on prescribing movement as medicine. She shared the importance of combating a loss of brain mass called axon dieback – a critical problem to address in slowing 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 leading factor in fighting axon dieback is a powerful process called neuroplasticity – the brain’s amazing ability to evolve in response to life experiences by forming new neurons, or brain cells, and creating new pathways. The best way to ensure a healthy head throughout life is by building a brain rich in neuroplasticity. 

So much more is still to be learned of the science behind neuroplasticity, but it’s thought new cell growth is activated by running through the release of hormones combined with an increase in blood flow. Another unexpected benefit is found in areas of the brain dedicated to memory, like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Researchers have discovered these regions are larger in runners!  

Helping an Aging Brain with Exercise

“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 40s, 50s, and 60s 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 decline and brain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and dementia can be slowed down or even reduced by cardiovascular exercise. Running is an excellent form of it, acting as one of the best ways to slow age-related decline and brain degeneration throughout aging. 

Gilly shared with us the evidence, “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.” She sees first hand through her work the improvements patients experience with regular exercise, providing a better quality of life. 

Here are Gilly Davy’s top tips for how to boost brainpower and improve overall health & wellbeing:

  • Exercise is non-negotiable for maintaining brain health. Specifically the vigorous kind at 70-90% of predicted heart rate max is needed 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 with high intensity activates the ability for your brain to strengthen and protect itself.
  • It takes getting out of breath for your brain to reap the rewards in the biggest way possible.
  • In generations that are aging, Gilly finds exercise avoidance tends to come out of fear. Unfortunately society often views people in higher age groups like they shouldn’t be exerting themselves to the point of huffing and puffing, causing worry and stigma. Yet everyone, regardless of their 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.
  • One last fun fact, runners as they age tend to become even more steady on their feet. Earning them running rewards in the form of better balance and stability during daily activities. 

Learn more about how being a runner provides miraculous benefits to our brains in Running and the Brain

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