I’m a Runner (retired)
For most of my adult life I’ve been a runner. Other forms of exercise just don’t do it for me.
Whether I’m addicted to the runner’s high (probably), or whether it’s just a lifestyle consideration (quite possibly), I can pretty much run anywhere, and have.
To run, all you need is a pair of shoes. There’s no getting wet (well OK, it does rain, but you don’t have to get changed for the pool), there’s no looking for a gym when you travel and there’s no reason for an excuse. It’s convenient and effective.
Move Your Body, Power Your Mind
But, as I get older, after a series of injuries, running and I are ‘taking a break’.
I’m exploring other forms of exercise, and I’ve become very interested in the mind-body connection, and answering this question,
To power my mind and my body, how much (and what kind of) exercise does my brain need?
We all know that regular exercise is essential for our physical health and well-being, that it lowers our risk of many, if not most, of the common diseases, and that it gives us an easy, natural high.
But did you also know that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day can improve your cognitive functions in the short term, and protect your memory and thinking skills from age-related diseases such as dementia, well into the future?
Brain and brawn, it turns out, aren’t mutually exclusive.
Exercise and Memory
Regular aerobic exercise, something that gets your heart rate up and causes you to sweat, also boosts growth in the hippocampus. The hippocampus, for those of us not neuroscientists, is the area of your brain that helps you learn and remember things. Pretty important for those of us who rely on what we know to support us in our business!
And the effect on memory and thinking patterns is both direct and indirect, long-term and short-term, according to the Harvard Health Blog.
Exercise directly reduces insulin resistance and reduces inflammation (if done at a low enough intensity), so there are immediate, short-term effects. And exercise, again, done at the ‘right’ levels, stimulates the release of human growth factor that helps us maintain a healthy brain.
But the indirect effects are also pretty interesting. Again, through endocrine and neurological effects, exercise can improve our mood and our sleep, and lower our levels of stress and anxiety. And these changes can reduce, or at least delay, long-term cognitive impairment.
Some of these effects are only seen after 6-12 months of consistent exercise, and there’s no guarantee of course, but the research shows pretty clear correlations.
As we age, and perhaps see our parents or grandparents suffering from age-related and other forms of dementia, it’s not a bad reminder to ourselves that there are easy ways we can give a little boost to our brain.
A Bigger Brain?
People who exercise have a bigger brain than those who don’t. Well OK, that’s overstating it a little — you data nerds will realise that a correlation is not the same as causality.
But there is a connection, the experts believe. People who exercise frequently have been shown to have a larger volume in the parts of the brain that control memory and thinking.
Boost brain power in just session
You can start to see an effect after just one run, or any exercise session that increases oxygen to the brain.
New research published in Psychophysiology looked at the relationship between oxygen in the brain, and cognitive ability. The assessed the performance of 52 women between 18 and 30 on a series of computer-based tests.
After just one dose of oxygen to the brain, there was an immediate improvement in the women’s test results — a boost to their cognitive functions.
So increased oxygen = immediate increased brain performance.
And these cognitive functions can affect anything from driving a car, to resisting sugar cravings, to making smart emotional and financial decisions.
Rather than reach for the sweetie jar if you’re feeling a little drained after a long writing session, reach for your training shoes instead.
But what to do?
A study is one thing, but what’s the best way for us to take action on this, and get that oxygen boost in our daily routine?
Turns out it’s as simple as 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise. This can include walking, cycling, swimming, or gentle running.
Being outside is extra good for you, but you can also do a stretch of housework or gardening!
These positive effects aren’t just short term. Yes, there is a “use it or lose it” component to exercising, but there’s also a residual effect — the more you exercise, the more oxygen your brain will retain each time you exercise. (perhaps that’s why some of the effects only show up after a few months?)
It’s as if your brain gets fitter along with your body — which means you’ll continue to perform better and make better decisions (and, hopefully write better!) as the weeks go by.
How much is enough?
It can be argued that humans were built for endurance, and that our physiology is designed for many hours of walking and running each day. All very well, but not the most practical arrangement for someone who works with words for a living.
So what is reasonable? And what’s the minimum that you can ‘get away’ with, and still get that oxygen-brain boost?
What’s that elusive recipe for the amount of exercise you need to be getting, daily or weekly, to get more oxygen, grow your hippocampus, and start shaping your brain into a lean, mean, thinking machine?
And what kind of exercise is best?
Well-being for Writers
Both of those studies we linked to above used brisk walking as the exercise of choice.
Walking is cardio-vascular — it gets your heart pumping and your blood flowing, and it brings you out in a mild sweat, or ‘glow’ if you prefer.
The first study required the participants to walk for 1 hour, twice a week (120 minutes weekly). And the second study required just 30 minutes of brisk walking, but five times a week (150 minutes a week).
This is pretty conventional advice, and anyone who has an activity tracker will be familiar with the 10,000 steps routine that came out of Japan, but has been widely researched across most Western countries.
10,000 steps is more than most of us can do in 30 minutes but, if you add this to a regular day’s activity, you’d probably come pretty close to that magic number.
The UK National Health Service (NHS) recommends that adults should do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, as well as some strength training, to maintain good physical health.
You might see advice that vigorous exercise counts for double, but really it has a different effect and it’s better to separate vigorous activity (anaerobic or strength training), from the ‘brisk walking’ or aerobic activity.
If you ever needed another reason to dust off your running shoes, this is it.
Let’s get specific
But what about specific suggestions for what comes into this ‘moderate exercise’ category? And what counts as ‘vigorous’?**
Sometimes we underestimate things that fall into our day naturally; we think exercise has to be ‘added on’. Not so. Here are some ideas for things you can easily fit into your day, that are considered to be aerobic activity, as well as a ideas for vigorous** exercise.
Worth making the time for, I think, if you want to help improve cognitive skills, and protect your memory and thinking-skills well into the future.
And even if the long-term effects on the brain have been overstated in the studies, I’m pretty sure you’ll feel better and more motivated for writing if you add in some aerobic activity.
Exercise time is the perfect ‘thinking’ time, in my experience.
30 Minutes of Moderate Aerobic
Moderate might sound easy but, remember – you should be slightly out of breath, and maybe breaking a slight sweat if it isn’t too cold where you are.
1. Brisk walking
Walking is the perfect exercise in many respects. We can do it anywhere, we can walk at lunch-time, to and from work, shops, or school, and we don’t need any special equipment.
Just make sure you’re walking briskly enough to be a little out of breath. Wear your running shoes or a good quality trainer if you want to make walking faster more comfortable.
2. Water Aerobics
This one does involve a trip to the pool, but exercise in water is great for reducing any injury risk. You’re taking the weight off your joints and tendons — getting the aerobic effect without the stress. If you have any osteoarthritis, joint problems, or you’re carrying a little too much weight, you’ll want to look into this option.
Water aerobics also has the benefit of being quite gentle — you shouldn’t get too sweaty and it can be a more sociable choice than walking.
3. Mowing the Lawn
As a catch-all for some reasonably active domestic chores, pushing the mower up and down the lawn 50 times, or vacuuming the whole house, can give you a pretty good workout.
Take time to focus on the activity as well as just doing the chore, to bring a meditative effect into your routine.
15 minutes of Vigorous Aerobics
Vigorous aerobic activity is good if you have a bit less time in your day. Take some time for longer walks at the weekend to make sure you’re getting your hours of aerobic activity, and keep the intensity higher, for shorter periods during the week.
If you’re pressed for time and your body can handle hard-impact aerobics, than 15 minutes of vigorous activity a day is enough to get those benefits for your brain.
Please do check that this is right for you before you start! Most injuries come because we want to race off and do more than our bodies can handle. Take it more slowly, even if it feels too easy at first.
If you enjoy hitting the trail, then there is no easier way to get your heart rate up than going for a run.
Choose grass or dirt over concrete and, if you must run on the road, tarmac (asphalt) is a little gentler on your joints than a concrete pavement (sidewalk).
If you’re going to run then do get fitted for a good pair of shoes. There’s been a big shift to a more minimalist shoe in recent years, but if you’re making a drastic change in your footwear such as this the rule of thumb is to integrate it gradually — and this means starting with two minutes a day in your new shoe!
This is one that you can literally do anywhere — well, anywhere the ceilings are high enough!
Skipping ropes range from the simple to the fancy models that track time and calories, but you don’t need this starting off. In fact, you might not be able to manage more than a couple of minutes.
As with any new exercise, get checked out, and start slowly.
3. Your Favourite Sport
Team sports like hockey, football (soccer), netball or baseball can be a fun way to pack in more of those vigorous minutes while spending time with your friends.
Better yet, these games normally last for more than 15 minutes, so you get a longer stretch, interspersed with some rest in between.
If you’re returning to sport, remember you are not the person you might have been in college, so take it easy, and train for the sport — rather than using the sport as the training.
What’s your pick?
Running is my sport, and always will be. I do enjoy other activity — but to me, cycling or hiking are hobbies, not sport.
As I get older though, I’m taking my aerobic training more seriously, and making sure I get a good spread of low-intensity across my week, with an occasional shorter, more intensive running training session as I work my way back from injury.
And short really does mean short. Just as with writing, little and often is better than packing it all in to a single weekend.
Exercise is something that should be a habit and a joy. Not a punishment.
What do you think?
Are you a runner? Or do you prefer another sport?
Whatever it is for you, remember that one step at a time is all it takes.
And with the added incentive of a smarter healthier brain well into old-age, that decision should be much easier.
** We’re not medical advisers here on Author Unlimited, just enthusiastic amateurs. Anyone planning to start a exercise regime should seek professional advice.
Do you exercise? What’s your routine, regular or otherwise?! Let us know on social media…