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Charlie Teo: What Happens In Your Brain When You Run

The neurosurgeon talks us through the benefits.
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Spring is here and that means it's officially running season. This time of year is marked by the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival each September and this year neurosurgeon, Dr Charlie Teo is participating.

A fan of running himself, we thought who better than a brain surgeon to talk us through the benefits of cardiovascular exercise. We asked Teo exactly what is happening in the brain when we go for a run?

"There are two advantages of exercise on the brain. First is that the brain has receptors for naturally formed opiates -- your own opiates called endorphins and enkephalins," Teo told HuffPost Australia.

"Exercise stimulates receptors in the brain that boost the activity of the hypothalamu -- the part of the brain that controls all executive function such as appetite, memory, temperature control, autonomic nervous system including blood pressure and pulse."

Teo explains that the the second advantage is on the cardiovascular system, so our blood vessels, heart and lungs.

Joining a running group can help with motivation and keep you accountable.
svetikd via Getty Images
Joining a running group can help with motivation and keep you accountable.

"Exercise makes your cardiovascular system function more efficiently -- it increases the function and efficiency of the function of blood supply to the brain. The brain is the most dependent of all our organs on optimal blood supply. Without good blood supply, the brain begins to die after four minutes. Increasing the efficiency of blood increases the efficiency of the brain," Teo said.

How long does the effect of running last in the brain?

Teo explains that this is a bit of grey area.

"At this stage we are still unsure why people start puffing when they're exercising. Exercise builds up CO2 and the body needs to get rid of it. Puffing or breathing is what happens when you burn off a lot of energy and create a lot of CO2 and the body needs to remove it. The body is so efficient that it starts puffing even before you're out of breath. It might be the simple thought of exercise or the intention to exercise that makes the body work efficiently so you get rid of CO2 even before you get the rise in CO2."

How long and often should we exercise for to experience the benefits?

"I'm not an expert in exercise physiology but it is pretty well known that exercise three times a week for one hour is optimal. This includes 20 minutes warming up, 20 minutes keeping your pulse rate at 75-80 percent, then 20 minutes of warming down," Teo said.

What happens to the brain when people don't do exercise?

"There is a clear correlation between lack of exercise and depression. A sedentary lifestyle means weight gain, poor cardiovascular function, poor heart function and poor blood return from the brain."

A treadmill is another option if the outdoors isn't.
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A treadmill is another option if the outdoors isn't.

"The brain is a highly metabolic organ and it is always very active, producing byproducts of cell metabolism called free radicals. Free radicals are extremely toxic and have a bad effect on the brain. Poor blood flow contributes to the build-up of free radicals -- scavengers of free radicals are oxygen and good blood flow on the brain. It is a really compounding effect and produces a negative cycle of free radical build up causing brain damage and leading to inefficiencies. It is a downward spiral," Teo said.

"We see this effect in our patients post-surgery. Unfortunately, a lot of our patients take a while to recover from surgery and during this time they don't exercise, don't walk around and the longer they're sedentary, the longer the brain experiences poor circulation which often leads to infection, pneumonia and eventually death. For this reason, we try to get our patients up and out of bed the day after surgery to stimulate the whole body to pump more efficiently and work more efficiently."

"The anti-cancer effect of exercise is extremely powerful. A recent study showed that the ideal target for steps per day is 20,000 rather than 10,000. The bottom line is the anti-cancer effect of exercise increases with the more exercise you do," Teo said.

If that's not enough to lace up the sneakers, we don't know what is. For more info on the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival , check out the website.

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