YOUR HEALTH: Run for your brains!

TUCSON, Arizona – Good for your heart.

Good for your muscles.

But is running good for your brain?

Gabe Mogollon is an Arizona state champion middle school runner.

"Each day I just kind of have like a mini goal to do whatever on my run, so once I'm done, I feel like I've done something for the day."

Gene Alexander and David Raichlen compared MRI's of eleven collegiate runners and eleven non-runners.

"By looking at these scans, we were able to tell that the endurance athletes who engaged in a lot of physical activity had areas in the brain that were more active and more connected than the non-athletes," said Dr. Gene Alexander, professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Arizona.

The red here shows more connection between parts of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and multitasking.   The yellow shows the same thing.

This could be from increased blood flow or production of factors that help neurons work better and grow.

"What we know right now is that something is better than nothing and so more than likely you're going to get big bang for your buck if you go from very little activity to some activity," explained University of Arizona Anthropology professor Dr. David Rachen.

Evidence has shown that changing to a healthier lifestyle can help prevent disorders like Alzheimer's.   In fact, the factors that put you at risk for heart disease can also lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer's.

These factors include:

  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • A diet lacking fruit and vegetables

Other studies have shown that there is a correlation between lifelong involvement in mentally and socially stimulating activities and reduced risk of Alzheimer's.

Brain connectivity diminishes as we age and is a factor in diseases like Alzheimer's.   What the researchers learn from young runners now, could help aging adults later.

"We're hoping to find ways in which we can use exercise to improve the brain function structure as we age and provide recommendations and prescriptions for better aging," said Dr. Alexander.

NEW PROCEDURE: A study done at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Exercises that included resistance training, balance and muscle toning did not have the same results. In the study participants walked quickly for one hour, twice a week making it 120 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week. Swimming, tennis, dancing, or even stair climbing keep the heart pumping and are good exercises to start trying.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.