How Exercise Keeps Your Brain Young

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“Your brain will eventually enjoy exercise for exercise’ sake, right; endorphins and endocannabinoids will create a sense of reward , but it doesn’t know that at first.”

Charles Duhigg

Want a younger brain? How about better memory? Then this blog post is for you. Read on and I’ll explain.

We all know exercise is good. And when asked why we do it, most of us would say we want a six-pack or get rid of unsightly bingo wings. But few would say they want to grow more brain cells. But that’s exactly what happens.

Not too long ago scientists thought the human brain starts going downhill from around age twenty-five — twenty-five! Fortunately, we now know that neurogenesis — the creation of brain cells — can happen well into old age, even nineties and beyond.

Why would movement affect the brain?

Think back to the first humans. Their environment was new. Everything was new. They had to get out there to explore and learn new things; what was food and what was predator; what was edible and what wasn’t; who was friend and who was foe.

Put simply, movement prepared the brain for new experiences, and the ability to learn from them, by making new neurons and increasing the volume of the brain.

Also, with no Lidls or Walmarts around the corner, early humans had to track down, hunt and kill their dinner — not something you’d do sitting down.

So how does it work?

Movement, be it walking in the park or up the stairs, cycling, or jogging puts your muscle cells to work. The largest muscles are those in your butt and thighs, and just taking the stairs instead of the lift (or, elevator for non-UK readers) can break down up to sixty percent of the glucose floating around in your blood.

And once you put your muscles to work, they begin producing proteins called myokines which are then released into the blood stream. Myokines have a range of effects: some make you feel alert, some act as antidepressants and others work like pain killers.


The hippocampus is your brain’s memory centre — think of it as HQ. From about age thirty-five, the volume of the brain shrinks by roughly half a percent every year, and the hippocampus shrinks too. And that’s why memory worsens with age. But it’s not all gloom and doom because exercise increases the volume and creates new nerve cells — at any age.

How much exercise does the brain need to grow younger?

A year-long study split 120 people into two categories: one did gentle stretching exercises, the other walked briskly for 40 minutes three times a week. By briskly I mean fast enough to up the pulse rate a few notches. Or, walking fast enough to become slightly out of breath.

A year later, the brains of the stretch group had, as predicted, shrunk in volume by 1.4 percent. And the group that had done more pulse-raising exercise? Drum roll, please. The volume of their brains… wait for it… had increased by two percent! In other words, their brains had grown two years younger!

And there’s more…

The hippocampus is not the only part of your gray matter that’s impacted by exercise; the frontal lobe is too. This is where the decision maker of your brain — the boss — lives. When faced with contrasting messages, like in the colour test below, it’s the frontal lobe that works out what to do.

A simple example of the frontal lobe in action coupled with the effects of exercise was done on a group of older adults, all regular exercisers. Cards, each with a colour written on it, but in different-coloured pens, were shown to the participants, one by one.

So, the word ‘red’ was written with a green-coloured pen, the word ‘blue’ was written with a red-coloured pen; you get the idea. Each person then had to say the colour the word was written in, not the word itself, as fast as they could.

And, yes, it might sound simple, but it’s something the brain gets worse at with age — unless one keeps active. But in this test, all the older adults — some of them ninety-plus — aced it, outperforming 30-year-old couch potatoes. Now, if that’s not an incentive to get moving, I don’t know what is.

In the ‘colour card test’ active ninety-year-olds performed better than sedentary thirty-year-olds.

Learning about this while writing this post made me realise that exercise is not primarily what we’ve been led to believe — something you do to keep your body fit and healthy.

Rather, from an evolutionary point of view, exercise primes your mind; it prepares you for new learning, new experiences. The fit and healthy body is secondary — a happy by-product.

This is such a huge topic that I’ve just touched on. Hopefully you found it interesting. Please like, share or comment — I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time,



An Unpeeled Apple a Day May Keep the Doc Away

photography of pile of apples
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“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”

Henry David Thoreau

Every so often, a so-called superfood gets its fifteen minutes of fame. Blog posts extol the virtues of the latest Instagram-worthy plant or seed that happens to be in fashion that week: acai, chia, bee pollen.

So I thought I’d pick something a bit less exotic, like apples, a commonly eaten fruit, and sing their praises a bit. A life-long apple-lover myself, I never realised how great they really are until now.

Originally from Kazakhstan, they have been a staple of the human diet over many millennia. The original, the Eve of all apples, still lives on there, in the wild, and has given rise to the varieties we buy in the supermarkets: Fiji, Granny Smith, Jazz, etc. 1

So what’s so great about apples?

  •  Well, they are inexpensive (yes, there are expensive ones, too, but a five-pack for £1.60 is pretty good, I reckon.)
  •  With hundreds of different kinds there’s something for everyone, from sweet to tart or something in-between.
  • They contain fibre1. Its job as bulker-upper may not be glam but very important. Bulkier stools are easier to pass and pass through quicker.
  •  And, let’s not forget, fibre encourages the growth of friendly gut bacteria which help you stay healthy by keeping the bad guys in check3.
  • They are chockful of vitamins A, C, E, and B9 (folate) as well as potassium, an important electrolyte1.
  • They contain flavonoids, plant chemicals that have antioxidant- and other health-promoting properties3.
  • They contain loads of good bacteria, especially the core (which most people throw away). Some evidence suggests organic apples have a greater diversity of health-promoting bacteria than conventional ones4 .

A bit more about flavonoids

Like our immune system, the function of flavonoids is to protect against disease-causing organisms, like bacteria and fungus. They also protect against damaging UV-light. And like antioxidants, flavonoids are able to neutralise free radicals2, those pesky unpaired electrons I wrote about in Eat This To Slow Down The Rusting.

Most flavonoids are concentrated in the skin, which is usually discarded by peeling. Some are found in the seeds2. Studies show that the peel contains at least twice the amount of flavonoids compared to the flesh, even up to six times more7, depending on variety.

A flavonoid telling a virus where to stick it

Can flavonoids help prevent disease?

Since the first discovery of flavonoids in the 1930s2, thousands have been identified; many have not7. And as more research is done, it seems these plant chemicals may be playing a key role in disease prevention7, alongside their more well-known colleagues: the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

But back to apples. Evidence suggests that the flavonoid-rich apple peel can contribute to better heart health. Eat an apple, unpeeled, and hey presto, within hours artery function is improved3. Better functioning arteries means lower blood pressure and better blood flow around the body and to the brain. What’s not to like?

Another study using dried apple peel ground into a powder improved arthritic joint pain in the subjects8. Maybe just eating the apple would have the same effect?

Of course, no food is ever a cast-iron guarantee you’ll never get ill; but decades of studies have shown that those who eat lots of fruit and veggies have a lower risk of disease than those that don’t. Fact.

So next time you’re reaching for an apple, leave the peeler in the drawer.

Until next time,


  2. Clayton P Health Defence, 2nd edn, Accelerated Learning Systems Ltd, 2004, Aylesbury, pp. 82; 107
  5. Clayton P Health Defence, 2nd edn, Accelerated Learning Systems Ltd, 2004, Aylesbury, p. 89
  7. Boyer J, Rui HL Apple phytochemicals and their health benefits;

PS. The amateurish illustrations are my own and have not been nicked from anywhere, promise 🙂

Want To Slow Down Aging? Cut Down On AGEs.

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“The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”

I thought it’d be fitting to write a post about advanced glycation end products, aka AGEs.  Known as ‘aging’ toxins, they speed up the aging process. They are present in some foods (mentioned below); cooking method also affects the amount of AGEs — dry or wet heat. And they are also a natural by-product of metabolism.

A Bit About AGEs

AGEs cause trouble in our bodies by cross linking protein to excess sugar molecules. Some types of cross linking are normal but not the kind I’m talking about here.

Effects of cross linking are stiffness and inflammation in body tissues. Many common diseases begin with inflammation.

Our bodies are pretty good at cleaning up the damage caused by AGEs produced by metabolism, a natural process. It’s when more is thrown in in the form of junk food that an excess is created and the body finds it more difficult to cope.

So health problems come knocking. Think less energy and joint and muscle stiffness as you age — that’s cross linking in action. Hello, rigid arteries, wrinkles and tissue damage (and much more).

Three Sources of AGEs

  1. The first you have zero control over as they are by-products of metabolism — the energy-extracting processes that convert food into more user-friendly forms for your body. They also accumulate during the normal aging process.
  2. The second you can control: what you eat and the way you cook.
  3. And the third source of AGEs? Cigarette smoke. Apart from the damage caused by free radicals released when smoking, AGEs are just another reason why smoking ages the skin.

Some of the Havoc Caused by AGEs

  • Anaemia
  • Cataracts
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Osteoporosis, fractures
  • Stroke

Foods with Lots of AGEs

  • Roast BBQ chicken
  • Fried bacon
  • Pan-fried steak
  • Pan-fried turkey burger
  • Big Mac
  • Oven-fried fish
  • Chicken McNuggets
Photo by Min An on

How to Minimise AGEs

Note that it is in dry heat that AGEs are most abundant, so cut back on roasting, frying and grilling; steam or boil instead. Or use a slow cooker.

OK, so maybe a boiled Big Mac doesn’t sound as tasty but, hey, think of the upside. Even better, have a steamed veggie burger. Now, we’re talking!

That’s not to say that having just plant foods on your plate means no AGEs at all. But, compared to animal protein, plant foods contain fewer AGEs; even when cooking over dry heat. Check the difference: McDonalds burger — 4.876 units of AGEs; veggie burger 20 units — both fried the same way.

Until next time. Eat well. Age well.



PS. Please note that this blog post is a simplified snapshot of complex biochemistry. For more in-depth information on AGEs, there’s plenty available online.

Hate Fast Running? Love Slow Jogging.

woman girl silhouette jogger
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“At age 43, when I decided to run again, I realized that the images used to describe runners didn’t fit me. I wasn’t a rabbit. I wasn’t a gazelle or a cheetah or any of the other animals that run fast and free. But I wasn’t a turtle or a snail either. I wasn’t content anymore to move slowly through my life and hide in my shell when I was scared…”
― John Bingham, The Courage To Start: A Guide To Running for Your Life

Could slow be the new fast? Could an easy-does-it approach be as useful to overall health as an all-out, no-pain no-gain way to get fit and healthy? Is the tortoise finally getting his comeuppance?

Surely long and intense workouts are the way to health and fitness?  And if it doesn’t hurt,  you’re not doing it right. Right?

Well, Professor Tanaka thinks slow is better. And he should know. He’s the author of Slow Jogging, an avid slow jogger and marathon runner. And as director of the Institute for Physical Activity at Fukuoka University, Japan, he knows a thing or two about exercise and health.

He believes humans were built for slow, long-distance running. For early hunter-gatherers, survival depended on being able to chase down that bison; an amble walk just wasn’t going to cut it. Likewise, an all-out sprint would have been impossible to keep up for long.

Anatomical features such as elongated Achilles tendons — barely used when walking — act like springs when your feet go off the ground and help cushion the impact of landing. And our ability to sweat helps prevent overheating.

person jogging
Photo by Daniel Reche on

So, how do you slow jog? Easily. Think of it as a step up from walking. Think trot. The wise professor suggests newbies switch between 15 seconds of walking and 30 seconds of slow jogging. That way, your body gets used to the new intensity over time.

Good posture is vital: keep your chin up, look straight ahead; imagine a thread running from the top of your head to the sky above. And keep your shoulders and arms relaxed; swinging your arms forward,  not sideways.

And don’t forget the footwork. Landing on your heel is more likely to cause injuries than if you land on the centre-to-front part of your foot. Injuries caused by poor form are one of the major reasons newbies give up. (I know, I used to be one of them.)

So what’s the ideal speed? In Japanese, the ideal slow jogging pace is known as niko niko — or, in English, if you’re able to smile, chat or sing, you’re good. Beginners should aim for walking speed.

How effective is it? Because more energy is used to switch from walking to slow jogging, more calories are used; in fact, up to twice the calories, but without leaving you feeling like a quivering heap of jelly, unable to take another step.

And what about health benefits? Well, a Danish study in 2015 found lower rates of death among the slow joggers than those jogging more intensely (think running). And an article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that as little as five minutes — five minutes! — of running at slow speed (lower than 6 miles per hour) lowered the risk of death from heart disease by up to 45 percent.

And the beauty of slow jogging is that anyone can do it. It’s a safe form of exercise, even for someone with underlying health conditions. As long as you stick to niko niko pace, that is.

Until next time,


PS. Sadly, Professor Tanaka died in 2018, but his legacy lives on as more people discover this fun, gentle and safe way to get fitter and healthier. I know I’m glad I did.


  3.  Tanaka, H, Jackowska, M. (2016) Slow Jogging: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Have Fun with Science-based, Natural Running [Kindle] Skyhorse Publishing.

What Cycling Made Me Realise About Myself.

close up photo of black bicycle wheel
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“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”

John F. Kennedy

Having commuted to work on bike for the past year and a half has led to not only better fitness and emotional wellbeing but also a realisation about myself; I’m becoming the kind of person I want to be.

I’m now acting like someone who gets on their bike and cycles for an hour to get to work. I’m now behaving like someone who cycles through wind and rain and afterwards laughs about having made a new definition of the word ‘wet’.

When I started cycling, I expected things like improved sleep, and less crankiness — what a bonus; what I didn’t expect was how my sense of self would change. I’ve realised that, yes, I can be determined when I want to; I can persevere. In a nutshell, and as corny as it sounds: I’m seeing myself in a new light.

A recent story in the Guardian talked about beginner cyclists reporting an improved sense of wellbeing; amen to that. And eighteen months on, those good feelings keep coming every time I get on my bike.

I’ve just read a book called Atomic Habits. As self-help books go, it’s definitely up there, in my opinion. Every time you do something that’s good for you, your health, your career, etc., you’re casting a vote for the type of person you want to be.

I really like that.

Until next time,


How Cycling Changed My Outlook On Life

forest bike bulls
Photo by Philipp M on

I started cycling about a year and a half ago. Mostly as a means of getting about. I was beginning to feel like I was being held hostage by bus and train companies whose services are sometimes late or, on a few occasions, don’t arrive at all.

Then, once I’d started cycling, I realised how much I was enjoying it. And I found myself pedalling along with a new sense of freedom and accomplishment, and a grin (out of joy, not pain) on my face.

I began arriving at work, red-faced and sweaty, yes (what do you expect after an hour’s ride?) but feeling good. Buzzing. That expression ‘water off a duck’s back’ suddenly made sense. That’s how I felt. As if nothing was worth getting uptight about.

I felt like I could take on whatever the day had to offer, without self-doubt getting in the way. Just a Zen-like expression of contentment on my face. Or so I like to imagine.

Truth is, looking serene with a face the colour of beetroot (and don’t forget ‘helmet head’) is highly unlikely; but hey, it’s a small price to pay in view of the benefits. (And my face colour does return to normal, eventually.)

To prevent funny looks from my colleagues, I keep deodorant and a packet of baby wipes (who knew they were so good at getting rid of sweat odour?) in my locker, and I have a change of clean clothes in my rucksack.

Once I’ve wiped myself down and changed clothes, I’m as good as new, and still buzzing. Which makes sense because exercise makes the body release endorphins, so called feel-good hormones; plus, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced.

Pre-bike days, I don’t ever recall getting to work feeling that good. In contrast, I’d often arrive bad-tempered about something. I think I was walking around in a semi-permanent state of irritation. The weather (it’s the UK, after all), late buses/trains, noisy neighbours, take your pick.

Now, a year and a half later, although I’m in no way immune to being stressed out on occasion, I feel that little bit more balanced, positive and a tad stronger, mentally. And physically, I feel fitter than I ever did in my 20s or 30s.

And long may it continue. Here’s to cycling.

Until next time,


How I did a 24-hour fast

clean clear cold drink
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I did a 24-hour water fast (allowing myself black coffee as well) between Sunday and Monday just gone.

Having read some interesting things about the effects of fasting on mice, where calorie restriction lead to a longer life span as well as healthier and younger-looking mice, I wanted to give it a try.

Humans aren’t mice, of course, but the research is very interesting. And who’s to say some of that can’t apply to humans as well? My guess is that those scientists, like Dr Valter Longo, will eventually be able to tell  us more about it.

Anyhow, I ended up buying The Longevity Diet, by abovementioned Dr Longo. I haven’t read through it yet. But so far so good.

I know I eat too much. And so does probably 90% of people in the western world.  There are lots of online articles on how portion sizes have grown over the past few decades.

For example: a plain bagel in 1993 weighed 70 g; in 2013 it had increased in mass to 86 g.  A 160-gram chicken pie in -93 had gained a whopping 80 grams by 2013. Just saying.(

Anyway, back to my fast. I must say, it was nowhere near as bad as you might think. For one, I planned it so that I’d do it on a day where I knew I’d be really busy at work.

I also made sure to start the fast in the evening — I ate my last meal around 5.30 p.m. on Sunday — so by the time I woke up Monday morning, I’d slept through the first half of it!

I had a cup of black coffee (nothing in it) and a glass or two of water first thing. I take a bottle with me to work; that way I keep sipping it throughout the day.

I had about three black coffees and loads more water at work. I can honestly say that it wasn’t unbearable at all; it was actually OK.

The thing about hunger — and I’ve heard others say this too — is that it comes in waves; it’s not a constant. Thank goodness. So, in that 8-hour working day, I think I had about 3 or 4 ‘waves’. Each one lasting maybe 10-15 minutes. That’s it. Really.

My weakest point of the day was when my work mates asked if I wanted a shortbread biscuit or two with my coffee. Or a chocolate digestive. I managed to resist but not without experiencing a few minutes of seriously wanting that bloody biscuit.

But that was it. The rest of the afternoon pretty much sailed by. Being busy really helped.  And I felt strangely energised all day, no dips at all. No headache either.

Tucking into dinner 24 hours after starting my fast, I felt as if I’d achieved something.  That definitely gave my confidence a much-needed boost.

And I also felt as if I’d done my body a favour by giving it a break from constant eating and snacking.

I’ll definitely do it again next week. In fact, it’s already pencilled into my diary.