Running for My Life

runningFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been a runner. When I was young, I ran for the pure joy of movement. As a tweener and teenager, I ran after field hockey balls, lacrosse balls, soccer balls and tennis balls. I was decent but no star. Still, I loved playing team sports and continued even after college. In my late 20s and throughout my 30s, running became a “thing” I did. I ran after work, on the weekends and participated in random road races including San Francisco’s famed “Bay to Breakers.”

Between relationships, a long run over the Golden Gate Bridge and back was a good way to fill up an open and empty Saturday.

In my 40s, after I had my children, running morphed from an individual activity into a social event. I joined the “Dirt Girls,” so called because we run trails and do weights, stair repeats, sprints and other fun tortures on trails all over Mt. Tam for an hour and a half Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. I love my fellow Dirt Girls and our relentlessly energetic and fearless leader Lisa Escabar. For 10 years, we’ve been out on the mountain, rain or shine.

Now that I'm (only slightly) past 50, running has taken on even more significance. Today, I run not just for fun and friendship, I'm literally running for my life.The latest in exercise science, as reported over the past year or so in the New York Times Well column, says that running -- or exercise in general -- can slow the impact of aging on both body and brain and keep them healthy and functional. These reports keep me going because I do want a larger hippocampus and a longer life.

Here’s an overview of what running can do for you.

Your brain will be bigger and work better. Much of the received wisdom on the benefits of exercise relates to strength, weight, flexibility and overall fitness of our physical selves. But there is one organ that we can’t see which recent research shows is also a significant beneficiary of physical exercise: the brain. For more than a decade, researchers have been studying the relationship between exercise and the brain. What they’ve discovered will make you want to put your running shoes on.

First, exercise slows the natural 1 percent annual shrinkage of the hippocampus that starts in your late 20s. Studies from the 1990s showed that the hippocampus, which plays a significant role in memory and specific types of learning as well as some aspects of emotional process (see anxiety below), bulks up from exercise. And more importantly brain cells generated as the result of exercise are effective “multi-taskers,” meaning the brains of exercisers are more cognitively flexible. On a practical level, studies show that exercise not only stems decreases in spatial learning and memory, but actually improves them.

But note: other studies show that brain benefits atrophy just like muscles, so you’ve got to keep moving to keep smart. Also, on the flip side, recent research concludes that inactivity negatively impacts brain structure, creating an over-active sympathetic nervous system. That’s the part of the brain that regulates constriction of blood vessels. In sedentary rats, this system grew too many neurons, making them more sensitive to stimuli, which could contribute to heart disease.

You’ll eat less. An oddly counterintuitive effect of exercise is that it actually dulls the appetite instead of increasing it. A study of 17 men showed that interval training  decreased levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite. The effect lasted 24 hours, according to food diaries kept by the study’s subjects. Of course, these were young, healthy men who, while overweight, were capable of completing a 30-minute workout with a very high intensity level. My own experience supports this finding. I definitely eat fewer and more healthy calories on the days I run.

You'll be less anxious. Until recently, brain scientists puzzled over the two incompatible effects of exercise on the brain. On the one hand, exercise stimulates the growth of new cells with neurons that respond to almost any stimuli, including stress. A brain over-stimulated by stress is an anxious brain. At the same time, studies show that exercise is a powerful antidote to stress. How can both exist at once? They can because runners brains also stimulate the growth of neurons that release GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity. NY Times columnist Gretchen Reynolds calls these “nanny neurons,” designed to hush and quiet the brain. A study by  Princeton University researchers uncovered this interesting brain cell behavior in rats. As one of the researchers pointed out, “[T]he hippocampus of runners is vastly different from that of sedentary” rats. Bottom line, exercise builds a brain that is better at handling stress.

Your knees will be better than ever. Despite rumors to the contrary, running and other high-impact activity doesn’t cause arthritis in knees. Results of a 2013 study from the Life Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA, show that adults over 45 have a lower risk for knee osteoarthritis and hip replacement than walkers. In fact, the study’s author speculated that the running might actually make knees healthier by improving joint cartilage health and decreasing weight, which impacts joint health as well.

Another study by Canadian researchers looked at the biomechanics of how the high-impact nature of running equates to low risk for arthritis. The study, which measured the force with which runners struck the ground, showed that while runners do quite literally pound the pavement, they do it less often than walkers. So really, the amount of force created by walking and running over the same distance is the same. Bottom line: running will not wear out your knees.

And last but not least, you’ll stay trimmer. These days, weight loss is the icing on my running cake. It’s one of many benefits that come with staying active. Again, studies show that long-term vigorous exercise is much more effective at keeping weight off than moderate exercise, i.e. walking. Another study at Berkeley’s Life Sciences Division shows that ‘age-related weight gain was attenuated by running in both sexes.” 

What all this information points to is that Nike has it right. When it comes to exercise, the best approach is “Just do it.”  And if you’re able, running is better than walking and intensity is better than moderation. It’s also clear that the older we get, the more we need exercise of any type, and running is okay no matter what your age. I have to go now so I can get my run in! -- Emily Brower Auchard

February 19, 2014


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