Cognitive benefits from running and other physical activities

DavidRaichlenMaking our community a healthier place is a goal shared by the Tucson Medical Center and the Southern Arizona Roadrunners. TMC is excited to partner with SAR to bring you regular features and wellness tips designed to make your running the best it can be.

In this feature, researcher David Raichlen shares how exercise benefits your brain.

Runners often strive for that “running zone,” when movements are rhythmic, effortless and almost unconscious.

But rest assured: Even when you’re in a zone, your brain is working hard to navigate what is really an incredibly complicated set of actions. And ultimately, that may be helping to protect your brain over time.

David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and a runner himself, has been focused on the study of the evolution of physical activity – notably, why should you have to expend energy to ensure optimal functioning of the physiological system?

Think about it. Exercise builds bone density. It builds muscle. It helps protect elasticity in arteries. The reverse is also true: Lack of physical activity atrophies muscles and thins bones. And it looks like it may also change your brain in detrimental ways. “It turns out that our bones, our muscles, our cardiovascular systems – and even our brains – have evolved in a way that responds to stress,” he said.

Exercise in mature adults seems to be associated with larger amounts of gray matter, the cell bodies that make up the brain. That’s important in areas like the hippocampus, which serve as the nervous system and the command center for emotion and memory. People who engage in exercise also have more white matter – the connections within your brain that help with attention, planning and decision making.

Together with Gene Alexander, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, Raichlen has explored the effects of exercise on the brains of individuals across the lifespan.

Their results are somewhat surprising. “Let’s say you go for a run in Sabino Canyon. What are you doing? You have to navigate, remember where you’re going, plan footfalls on uneven terrain, pay attention to surroundings,” explained Raichlen, who joined Southern Arizona Roadrunners a year ago. “Running actually involves some fairly complex processing, and it’s possible that is the stress that creates these connectivity differences and perhaps that’s the stress that improves brain function across ages.”

The good news is that it’s not too late to switch to a more active lifestyle. Most of the studies that have shown protective changes have involved sedentary adults who began walking at moderate intensity for 150 hours a week.

Raichlen’s research also studies hunter-gatherer cultures in Africa to get a better model on what physical activity was like more universally in the past.  “They’re very physically active, but they also rest a lot. When they’re moving, they’re really moving. And when they’re not, they’re resting: There’s not a lot of time when they’re moving with low intensity,” he said.

The take home message?  Runners may typically be the types who like to get out there and exercise, but for other mortals, it can be hard to prod them into greater activity. “But could you get people to walk a little faster when they park their car at the grocery store or get them to walk a little faster at the mall?  It’s not always the 30 minute run: The other thing people can do is accumulate moderate physical intensity throughout the day by just trying to aerobically challenge themselves more often.”

 

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