Thursday, November 1, 2018

Sprinting and Your Brain

Sprint interval training is a type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) based on short bursts of maximum or near-maximum sprinting speed. The health benefits of sprint interval training appeal to people with a wide range of goals-- whether it be weight loss, greater lean muscle mass, or better cardiovascular endurance. However, one of the least-known but most beneficial results of sprint interval training is a dramatic improvement to brain health. So what’s the connection? To understand that, we need to understand how it differs from traditional forms of exercise.

What makes sprint interval training different than traditional exercise?

Traditional, or steady-state exercises are exactly as they sound--steady, evenly-paced exercises performed for a set duration of time. Generally, as you perform a steady-state exercise, your heart rate is slightly elevated but remains fairly stable. Sprint interval training, on the other hand, requires your heart to work harder, but for shorter bursts. Consider the last time you went for a jog, compared to the last time you ran as fast as you can. Your heart rate after sprinting was higher and took longer to return to its normal rate, right? 

All of that increased pumping has a positive impact on your fitness level, because of how your body fuels your workout. During a steady-state exercise like jogging, your body relies primarily on oxygen for fuel, without the need to burn energy from other storehouses in your body. Sprint intervals, by contrast, start by burning oxygen. Then, as your body reaches its maximum oxygen levels, it starts to break down glycogen, burning a greater number of calories in a much shorter amount of time.

Sprint intervals also boost endurance levels by continually pushing your body past new fitness peaks by increasing cardiovascular endurance and lean muscle mass. As a bonus, you’ll burn calories even after you’ve stopped sprinting, thanks to Excessive Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), which is the process of burning calories while the body returns to its resting metabolic rate. 

How does it translate into improved brain health?

In a recent study by the University of Texas, researchers discovered that HIIT exercises like sprint interval training had a significant impact on a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF helps regulate mood, the repair of brain cells and cognitive functions like memory and the ability to retain information. 

When your BDNF levels are low, you are at greater risk of depression and certain mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The study proved that HIIT exercise has a positive impact on the amount of BDNF in the brain, resulting in improved brain functions. 

Here’s what that means for a better quality of life for you.

Better cognition and short-term memory

In another study of the effects of HIIT, subjects were given a memory test immediately following a HIIT session. The research showed a significant boost in both selective attention and short-term memory compared to the control group, which did only low-intensity stretching exercises. 

Over 80% of people in North America over the age of 85 suffer from some degree of dementia. A sprint interval training program that raises BDNF and increases cognition, attention, and memory is a smart way to safeguard your brain as you age.

Improved mood

We’ve all heard about “runner’s high.” It’s the good mood that runners claim after they complete a workout. Non-runners may scoff at it, but science has proven that runner’s high is a very real phenomenon-- especially with HIIT exercise like sprint intervals. By stimulating the release of endorphins and chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, an exercise session immediately boosts your mood.

Reduced risk of depression and anxiety

Studies have proven that cardiovascular exercise can be just as effective as medication when it comes to anxiety and depression. In addition to releasing mood-boosting brain chemicals, it leads to structural changes in the brain and body that contribute to an overall sense of well being and security. While you should never stop taking medication or start a vigorous exercise program without consulting your physician, consider sprint intervals as a medication-free way to reduce the risk of and treat depression and anxiety, with the added side effect of better physical fitness.

The health benefits of sprint interval training are profound. Along with the immediate benefits to mood and mental health, sprint intervals offer an easy, inexpensive way to achieve and maintain lifelong fitness.

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