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,



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
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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
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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,


Why You Should Never Stop Moving


“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

We live longer than ever before. Gone are the days when people in their fifties or sixties were considered old. Mind you, to anyone below twenty, forty-odd probably seems ancient.

You’d think living longer is good news. And I think it is. But not if those extra years are spent living with poor health, whether mental or physical. Granted, some things, like your genetic makeup, you don’t have much say over. Although there is some science turning that on its head, too.

But some things you can control: the food you eat, whether you exercise or not, getting enough sleep, and learning to take a more balanced view on life. Yes, I know: not always easy. And none of these are guarantees for long, disease-free lives.

But they can help to increase your chances of living a healthier and more stress-free life as you get older. And if illness and disability does strike, with a healthier and more nourished body and mind, you are more likely to be able to deal with whatever challenge comes your way.

Take exercise. It doesn’t have to mean joining a gym, if that’s not your thing. There’s shedloads of evidence that walking, for example, is hugely beneficial, not just for physical health but for mental wellbeing, too. In fact, regular walking can even enhance your cognitive skills. What’s not to like?


A year ago I bought myself a road bike. Mainly because I was getting peeved with public transport (I don’t drive.). Over the years, I must have spent many hours at stations and bus stops waiting for delayed buses/trains, whilst paying for the privilege. No more.

In the last twelve months, I’ve cycled to work on average two to three times a week (about 8 miles or 12 kilometres each way). And it makes me feel good whilst doing me good. And the sense of freedom I get is priceless.

And when everyone else is stuck in traffic (which happens a lot in these parts), there I am, whizzing past in my Hi-Viz gear with a slightly smug grin on my face.

The point is, I’ve found something that works for me. And you have to do the same. If you don’t enjoy it, chances are you won’t stick with it for long. So find something that makes you look forward to doing it. Whatever it is. I know I look forward to getting on my bike tomorrow.

Use your own home as your private gym. You don’t need special equipment. Or fancy clothing. Tins of tomatoes can double up as dumbbells. Use the edge of a chair to do tricep dips. Or spend a few minutes marching on the spot, just long enough to get your heart rate up.

I brush my teeth standing one-legged, just to practice my balance. Sometimes I’ll do squats. No doubt a funny sight but, hey, it works for me.

I brush my teeth standing one-legged, just to practice my balance. Sometimes I’ll do squats. No doubt a funny sight but, hey, it works for me.

My point is, exercise doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t need to cost a bean. It doesn’t need to be done in a special place, or with specific equipment. Or done for hours on end. All it needs is YOU.

And if you’re stuck for ideas, check out YouTube — there’s lots of exercises. Pick out what works for you and make it your own.

Try and see yourself ten, twenty, or whatever, years from now, feeling as fit and healthy as possible and enjoying your life the best you can. Because I believe we all owe ourselves that much. And you get to set a great example to those around you.

Remember: we weren’t built to sit still. We’re designed to move.

Until next time,