Running is Good for Your Brain?

New research has surprisingly showed that challenging physical activity can help protect–and even expand–your brain.

Brain researcher, Aga Burzynska, studied the brain of Olga Kotelko (below), and made a telling discovery about mental sharpness in later life.Olga-Kotelko-2

Kotelko took up track and field at the age of 77 and went on to dominate international sports competitions well into her 90s, always pushing herself to do more.  What got Burzynska’s fascination was not Kotelko’s physical prowess, but Kotelko’s brain.

At the time of Kotelko’s death at the age of 95, her mind was super sharp. She spent the last year of her life working on an autobiography, The O.K. Way to a Happy, Healthy, Life.  She read the newspaper every day, and loved doing Sudoku puzzles. She sang complicated ecclesiastical hymns with her church choir. Even at 95, her cognitive abilities were far from slowing down.

The typical human brain shrinks over time, with neural connections atrophying and dense brain matter literally thinning. High blood pressure and other heart-related conditions make things worse and may contribute to a disorder called vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s.  As a matter of fact, dementia sets in for 30% of us after the age of 85, but not in Kotelko’s case.

Kotelko was an ordinary grandmother from West Vancouver. Most of her life was spent raising two girls alone, teaching elementary school,and volunteering at her church.  She retired in 1984 and discovered her inner jock.  She first joined a coed slow-pitch softball team, and played the sport until the age of 77 after crashing into a guy twice her size while chasing a fly ball. A friend suggested she try track and field. She went on to winning 750 gold medals and setting 37 world records in sprinting,the long jump, the javelin throw, and other events.  Her last competition was in 2014, in Hungary, weeks before she died.She jokingly said that the only reason she set so many records because no one else her age could even do the events! Truthfully, she was throwing and running farther and faster than much-younger women.

She agreed to let the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology study her brain. They tested her memory, problem-solving abilities, processing speed, and other cognitive skills. They also scanned her brain on an MRI machine. Her brain wasn’t pristine–MRIs showed a large number of tiny white dots in her white matter, representing the kind of age-related changes commonly detected in elderly folks.  Her brain had also appeared to shrink over time, but that’s normal with aging. Overall,it was discovered that Kotelko’s brain was extraordinarily youthful for a woman just a few years below the century mark–just by looking at her brain, the age was placed as someone in their 60s,not 90s.

Did all the running, jumping,and most crucially, learning at 77, help keep her brain strong well into her 90s?  Probably so, but the explanation is more complex than saying that “exercise is good.”  The fact that she never stopped challenging herself to learn, no matter how old she got, probably helped, too.

Here is how Olga got started:

  1. Start slowly-build strength, balance, and coordination.
  2. Break it down-start with short sprints and use a mini trampoline to improve the elasticity of the muscles.
  3. Relax your mind and muscles-the stress of daily life can distract you from your activity of choice, so yoga is a good recommendation to relieve stress and tension.
  4. Watch and learn-observe other athletes who are at a higher level; you can look up different athletes on YouTube.

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