I love to walk. Running, not so much. And yet in high school I signed up for both the track and the cross country teams. I excelled at neither (or, more plainly put, I sucked at both). Perhaps my only noteworthy qualities were my dogged pursuit of mediocrity as well as a certain stubbornness; during practice one day I experienced a sharp pain on the outside of my right ankle. The coach pooh-poohed my supposed injury and the following morning I ran the required seven miles with the rest of the team. Well, that ankle swelled up like a balloon and an x-ray confirmed a stress fracture of the fibula. My credibility may have been restored but my brief and unremarkable career as a runner had come to an end.
Two recent articles have prompted me to wonder if I should give it another chance. On April 22nd, the New York Times Magazine featured a story titled Jogging Your Brain. Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Technology measured the cognitive power of four groups of mice before and after placement in distinctly different environments. The first cage offered a wide range of foods as well as stimulating ‘toys’, a second cage was much the same but also had a wheel on which to run. A third cage was totally unembellished and the fare was dry kibble. And the fourth cage was similar to the third but with the addition of a running wheel.
Interestingly, it was only the ability to run that made a difference; “Animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice.” Of note, the mice did enjoy the ‘toys’, but without also exercising, realized no cognitive gains.
So running might make us a bit smarter. Also, we might live longer. According to a new study out of Copenhagen, those who jogged regularly, lived an average of six years longer. Of course, if you are going to live longer, you might as well look good, and, again, exercise may be the way to go. For those interested in retaining shiny pelts and youthful gonads, check out the results of research from Ontario in which mice harboring a genetic mutation which disrupts mitochrondrial repair are nonetheless able to overcome the ravages of aging by, yes, running.
It all makes a bit of sense. Humans are designed to run, and our natural ability as long distance runners offered us a great evolutionary advantage. In fact, I would go so far to say that exercise is even more important than diet; until very recently (and this is still true in less prosperous nations), food was often scanty and a well balanced diet a luxury. We were always on the move, not only in search of our next meal, but in an effort not to become a meal ourselves. It is the way of nature, and only humans and the animals we have ‘domesticated’ live otherwise.
Ultimately, even if running is not/cannot be your thing, keep in mind that exercise of any sort is going to do your body good. However, for those of who are, as I am now, sitting in front of a computer monitor, there is some good news in that regard. According to a report from the Mayo Clinic, “Combining mentally stimulating activities, such as using a computer, with moderate exercise decreases your odds of having memory loss more than computer use or exercise alone.” Just as I suspected: humans can benefit from the addition of stimulating toys, but should not become so immersed in them that we become sedentary.
If we make regular exercise a habit, perhaps we can live longer, be smarter and maybe even look better too. Just don’t forget your sunscreen.