Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Your Brain Just Called—It’s Not OK to Skip Your Workout Today

Monday’s stirring Boston Marathon results--Americans taking 6 of the top 10 men’s spots and 2 of the top 10 women’s spots--sent a buzz through the running community. It wasn’t just a great showing by the elite runners under warmer than ideal conditions, it was a victory for every rank and file runner who toed the line and every spectator who showed up to cheer them on.

As we posted four years ago this week, just days after the tragic bombings at the 2013 Marathon,
Life Is  a Marathon Not a Sprint.
Runners generally don’t have super-human size, strength, blazing speed or extraordinary leaping ability,” we wrote. “They don’t slam dunk, hit home runs, do touchdown dances, hit holes-in-one or throw down 720s from the top of the half-pipe. They’ve simply found a way to get the most of the endurance gene we all have inside of us and put one foot in front of the other on days when others hit the snooze button, pull the covers over their heads, skip the gym and go out for brunch.”

Don’t wimp out—ever!

So, if you’re feeling guilty about skipping your jog, yoga session or gym workout today, we’re NOT going console you. That’s right. Even if you’re not training for a marathon, triathlon or Tough Mudder competition, wimping out is not only bad for your body; it’s bad for your brain as well. A
new study from the University of Maryland department of kinesiology finds that the benefits of exercise for brain health can diminish in as little as one or two weeks of inactivity.

The author at '97 Boston Marathon

After 18 marathons (including two Bostons), 50 triathlons and seven 24-hour relays, my competitive racing days are over. Hip, labrum and shoulder surgeries in recent years have put a permanent exclamation point on that fact. But, I still manage to get a short run, swim or bike ride in about 355 days a year and feel absolutely crummy—both mentally and physically—on those 10 days a year when I don’t. As my college track coach used to say, “anyone can run fast when they’re feeling good, we’re going to teach you to run fast when you feel like crap.”

*** QUICK TIP for beating the exercise blahs: On those days when you’re tired, stressed and just aren’t feeling it, try the 10-minute test. Assuming you’re not seriously ill or recovering from surgery, make a deal with yourself to get to the track, gym or exercise class at a pre-determined time. Just try to make it through the first 10 minutes. If you’re still feeling crummy after the first 10 minutes, call it a day. But more often than not, once you get moving, you’ll finish the full workout and come back more energized than when you arrived.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise—particularly endurance exercise—helps to create new neurons, blood vessels and synapses and it strengthens areas of the brain that are related to memory and higher-level thinking. Those who exercise regularly not only have more endorphins—the body’s happy chemicals—but better memories and cognitive skills than their sedentary counterparts.

Without getting into the wonky science, exercise physiologists believe that working out increases blood flow to the brain. Blood carries fuel and oxygen to brain cells, along with other substances that help to jump-start desirable biochemical processes there. In general, the more blood you have flowing into the brain, the better.

The University of Maryland study, which was published in August in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, asked a group of highly fit older men and women to stop exercising for nearly two weeks. Participants were competitive master’s runners between the ages of 50 and 80 who agreed to join the study. At the start of the experiment, the runners visited the researchers’ lab for tests of their cognitive skills. They also had a special brain M.R.I. that tracks how much blood is flowing to various parts of the brain.

Then the athletes sat around for 10 days. They did not run or otherwise exercise and were asked to engage in as little physical activity as possible. Again, these were highly fit and disciplined people, so being asked to be couch potatoes for a while was a punishment for them, not a reward. 

After 10 days of being sedentary, the itchy runners returned to the lab to repeat the earlier tests, including the M.R.I. scan of their brains. The results showed striking changes in blood flow now. Much less blood streamed to most of the areas in the runners’ brains, and the flow declined significantly to both the left and right lobes of the hippocampus. It’s not clear if the study participants performed noticeably worse on the tests of cognitive function than they had at the start. But, the results suggest that the improvements in brain blood flow because of exercise will diminish if you stop training.

The study’s message seems clear. For continued brain health, you have to keep moving. The international running community and Bostonians of all colors, ages and sizes took that to heart on Monday. For the 25,000 participants and million-plus spectators, it was a resounding victory over terrorism, self-doubt and the endless temptations we face to take the easy way out.

Regardless of how your day is going, just keep putting one foot in front of the other each and every day. Before you know it, you’ll be closer to your goals than you think.
Have a good week. Best, HB


TAGS: Benefits of exercise, exercise physiology, brain health, University of Maryland kinesiology

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