We know that exercise is great for our bodies, but did you know it’s also great for your brain? A new study shows that running, even more than other aerobic or high-intensity exercises increases the development of neurons in the parts of the brain we use for learning and retaining information. Researchers saw that the hippocampus lights up on imaging scans during running (indicating growth and new connections) but stays dark during exercises like weight lifting.
I practice high-intensity interval training myself (with exercises like weight lifting or rope jumping) because studies show that exercising in this way burns more calories; however, the effects of neurogenesis only occur during sustained running (i.e., at a steady pace for 20 minutes or more). And compared to those who are sedentary, subjects who ran three times a week had 2-3 times more hippocampal neurons at the end of the study. While researchers are not exactly sure why these results are the case, there are theories about how sustained increased respiration (and therefore oxygen) and blood flow contribute to this brain activity. Running has even been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in known patients and researchers believe there may soon be evidence that running can prevent the disease altogether.
This is all well and good, but what if, like me, you don’t currently run? Or what if you don’t work out at all? Starting a running routine can seem overwhelming, but there’s an app that can help.
Couch to 5K
The Couch to 5K app is exactly what it sounds like a program to get absolute beginners off of the couch and running 5K in just 9 weeks. 5K is 3.1 miles, which should take anywhere from 20-30 minutes to run at a good pace (i.e., just the right amount of sustained time to get those brain-boosting benefits). While the many benefits of running are extremely convincing, embarking on a run incorrectly is a surefire way to get injured (or at the very least, to overdo it and decide running is not worth it after all).
You can download the app to your smartphone and plug in your headphones. The program includes three detailed, timed runs per week with rest/recovery days built in between. The program tells you when it is time to walk, when to jog, and when to run. Each week has a slightly different routine to help you get accustomed to your routine. Alert texts let you keep track of your goals and stay motivated even in between runs.
Becoming a Runner
I started my Couch to 5K program last week. I was surprised at how simple it was to follow. The affable voice of Laura, the C25K coach, comes in over my music to tell me what I should be doing and when (I have an iPhone 5 but I’ve heard that those with earlier versions of the iPhone may have trouble listening to music while using the app—for me this would be a really big deal since I depend on my music to motivate me to work out. There is also a version for Android phones). The basic app is free, but an advanced app with GPS locator and other features is $1.99.
I was surprised by how quickly the first six routines flew by and honestly it was difficult to not keep running beyond the allotted times by the end of week two (but this may be because I’m used to exercising regularly, albeit not running). As with any exercise program, make sure you have approval from your doctor before you begin. You’ll also need appropriate running shoes and a safe surface on which to train (if you have access to a track that’s great, but I find running on natural trails to be far more engaging). Happy running/neuron growing!
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