Thursday, December 10, 2009

Running makes me smarter!

Running keeps me sane. It makes me a better mother. It makes me a reasonable wife. It keeps me from going nuts and gives me time to let my mind loose. It makes it possible for me to eat chocolate on a regular basis without becoming the size of a small ocean liner. Mostly, it makes me happy. But today I learned running does a whole lot of other things for me.

Did you know that exercise not only reduces your risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, but it can actually create new brain cells? Me neither. I’m all for adding brain cells. Charles Hillman, director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, “Aerobic exercise increases the supply of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which protects brain neurons and promotes the growth of new nerve cells and synapses that are related to learning and memory.” Which in English means exercise makes your brain work better. And this was true for all the studies – regardless of age. The protein BDNF is active in the area of the brain related to relational memory – the ability to make logical connections among pieces of information.

The Illinois researchers also found that aerobic exercise improves executive function (the ability to plan and make decisions, correct mistakes and react to new situations). All I know is after a long run, I can think clearly. I thought it was just me, but turns out exercise makes everyone’s brain think better.

All of this is well and good for those of us who appreciate improved executive function and relational memory, but what about our kids? The best way to teach kids to do anything is to model it for them because we all know our children are much more likely to do what we do, than what we say (no matter how many times we say it). If you aren’t already a regular at the gym, then it’s time to get off the couch. If not for you, and your improved brain function, than for your kids.

I read all of this useful information in a promotional booklet from Nutrition Action Newsletter (published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest) which arrived in the mail today. My new subscription is a gift from my mother-in-law (Thanks Margot!).

Here’s another interesting tidbit I read – Sitting can kill you. Peter Katzmarzyk, an epidemiologist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisana, says, “People who sit for the majority of their day have much higher mortality rates than people who don’t, even if they’re physically active during another part of the day.” Ouch. The article goes on to site several studies illustrating his point, including a representative sample of 17,000 Canadian adults who were followed over a 12 year period. 20% of those who said they sat “almost all the time” died. Bad luck? Probably not. Compare those numbers to the people who said they sat “approximately half the time” – only 12 % of them died in the same period. And of the people who said they sat, “almost none of the time”, only 6% died. I’m sure this is a toughie for people who are paid to sit at a desk. The article had a few suggestions like getting up and standing as you work, taking frequent breaks to stretch and walk, and even mentioned “treadmill desks” which sound like modern torture devices. But I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.

If growing new brain cells and not dying aren’t enough motivation for you, here’s some more:

Active people are 15-25% less likely to be diagnosed with depression than inactive people. In people with depression, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise improves symptoms.

Forty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise three to five times a week lowers systolic blood pressure by 2 to 5 points. That may not sound like much, but it would save an estimated 11,800 to 27,600 lives a year.

If you have arthritis, moderate intensity, low-impact exercise for 30-60 minutes three to five times a week can reduce pain and disability. Both aerobic and muscle strengthening help.

Older adults who are physically active have about a 30% lower risk of falls.

Weight-bearing aerobic and strength-training exercise three to five days a week can increase – or slow the decrease in- the density of spine and hip bones. In one study, women who walked at least four hours a week were 40% less likely to break a hip than those who walked less than an hour a week.

Aerobic exercise lowers the risk of stroke.

Aerobic exercise cuts the risk of heart attack by 20-35% in most studies.

Moderately active people have a 30-40% lower risk of type 2 diabetes than inactive people.

Exercise can curb your risk of cancer. It can directly lower your risk by keeping off excess weight, or it can work directly on cancer risk (particularly colon and breast cancers).

(taken from the article, “Seven Facts You May Not Know About Exercise” by David Schardt)

This is where the sneaker rubber needs to hit the road (or the treadmill or the gym). It’s not really optional – you need to exercise. And your kids need to exercise. This is not something to put off until you have more free time. Find a way now. This is so much cheaper than medical bills and so much less painful than heart attacks, cancer, and premature death. If you don’t teach your kids the importance of exercise, they may never know. This is a total win-win. When you exercise, you feel better mentally and physically and you model a behavior that could save your child’s life. Plus it makes you smarter – and who doesn’t need a few more brain cells?

Here’s a few ideas to get your kids moving:
• Enter a 5K. I know for a fact that even very young kids can run (or walk) a 5K. I get beaten in races by runners half my height on a regular basis. Pick a cause you care about. Bring along the family dog. If running the entire time is too daunting, make a plan. You can run at the start and finish and walk in between (everyone will think you ran the whole way!) or choose a pattern like running a minute and then walking a minute. I have a running watch that times intervals. On days when I just don’t have the energy, it helps me by sounding an alarm that reminds me to walk (one minute) and then run (4 minutes). I’ve discovered that this doesn’t really even mess up my time and when I run intervals I can run much farther.

• Go for a hike. Invite some friends. Make it a scavenger hunt. Give your kids a list of things to find. Or make it a family goal to hike all the parks in your area. Or all the parks in the country. Geocaching is another great way to get your family moving (check out for information on this fun treasure hunting hobby).

• Walk the dog. Don’t have one? This is a great excuse to get one. They need walking several times a day. Having a dog forces you to get out and exercise.

• Join a team – swim team, soccer, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, anything that requires you move. I aim for allowing my kids two extracurricular activities each season – one that gets their body moving and one that gets their mind moving.

• Ride bikes. Ride skateboards or scooters. Jump rope. Rollerblade.

• Take a spin in a skating rink. I remember as a kid, this was a regular event in my social life. These days they are a little harder to find, but they’re out there.

• Play games – capture the flag, kick the can, hide & seek, kickball, wiffleball, ultimate frisbee. Play with your kids – you’ll surprise them and you’ll laugh yourself silly.

• Do an exercise video together.

• Create a weightlifting center in your basement. You don’t need anything fancy, just a clear space and a few weights to start. A bench and a mat help too. Take a personal training session together with your kids and learn how to do exercises safely.

• Set a goal – a number of miles, a number of hours, whatever and focus on it. Plan a celebration when you’re finished.

• Try something new – martial arts, gymnastics, dance, fencing. Isn’t there some sport you’ve always wished you could do? Who’s stopping you? Ask your kids to join you.

• If you’ve got the cash, buy a treadmill, stationery bike, elliptical, or some other such device. When it’s too cold, wet, or early, I run on my treadmill. I’ve got a TV set up in front of it hooked up to a DVD player. I keep a steady stock of netflix DVD’s of TV shows - mindless brain-candy that keeps me distracted from the fact the basement is a mess, the kids are about to get up, and the cat box needs to be changed. Most shows are 40 minutes long – perfect to get in 4 miles.

The bottom line is you have to make a conscious decision to exercise. It won’t ever be convenient. Or easy. Some days it really is hard to do. But you need to do it every day. I mean that. A couple times a week is not enough. Our bodies were designed for real physical exercise every day and now that we aren’t out slaving in the fields or hunting down our supper, we have to find new ways to move them. Pick what works for you, but pick something. Your life just might depend on it. Not to mention your IQ.

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