Imagine if there was something you could do right now that would have an almost immediate and positive benefit on your brain.
It would help improve your mood, your focus, help to reduce anxiety/stress, benefit sleep and help in creating long-lasting memories.
It could be started at any age and would last a long time and could also help protect your brain from many different conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s and dementia in older age.
Well there is something, and it is probably the most effective thing you can do for your brain. What is it? The answer is… physical exercise.
We are all very aware of the benefits that physical exercise can bring. However, the majority of studies have looked at the benefits to the heart, lungs and muscle mass.
These give plenty of good reasons to be physically active, such as reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lowering your blood pressure or losing weight.
More recent research is suggesting we need to look to the brain to show other benefits of a physically active lifestyle on an individual.
For years the focus has almost exclusively been on the physical benefits of exercise and has ignored the improvements to overall brain function of being regularly active.
Current studies are showing that many types of exercise, from walking to cycling, make people feel better and can even relieve symptoms of depression. Exercise triggers the release of feel-good hormones and chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and endorphins that can dull pain, lighten mood and relieve stress.
Improve Memory & Focus
The brain benefits of exercise go beyond improving your mood. It has been shown that people who exercise have greater brain volume (ref. 1) in areas of the brain associated with reasoning and executive function (which includes paying attention, planning and starting tasks and staying focused on them).
The brain’s structure, function and learning is altered with increased aerobic capacity (which is the ability to exercise longer and more efficiently).
There is a boost in the size of the ‘hippocampus’, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
It has also been found that exercise can lead to less decline in the ability to learn and understand (ref. 2) as we get older.
Reducing the onset of depression or Alzheimer’s
It’s estimated that a new case of dementia or Alzheimer’s is diagnosed every four seconds globally.
By the year 2050, more than 115 million people could be affected by dementia worldwide.
Exercise then, might be a simple and effective way for people to reduce the risk of memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
A study (ref. 3) from the University of Copenhagen showed that a moderate to high intensity workout may not only slow down the development of Alzheimer’s – but may lead to an overall improvement in cognitive functions (which is the mental action of acquiring knowledge and understanding).
Two hundred people, with symptoms of mild or moderate Alzheimer’s, were given an hour of exercise three times a week over the course of 16 weeks.
The results showed, for those who exercised, fewer common Alzheimer’s symptoms such as mood changes, anxiety and depression when compared to a control group who didn’t exercise. Interestingly, they also showed improvements on tests for memory, language and mental speed.
Amazingly, in another study it was shown that exercise could potentially postpone the onset of dementia by up to 15 years (ref. 4).
Combining Physical and Mental Exercise
Exercise likely improves brain health through a variety of ways, but one kind in particular – aerobic exercise – appears to give the biggest benefit. The brain is the biggest consumer of oxygen in the body. With the heart beating faster, there is an increase of blood flow to the brain and with this a corresponding increase in oxygen.
The increase in oxygen can lead to the growth of new brain cells, thanks to a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF triggers the growth of new neurons and helps repair and protect brain cells from degeneration. It has been likened to having the same effect that manure has on your flowers and veggies.
In contrast, mental training via learning new skills, especially where the task is challenging, can increase the number of new brain cells which survive and mature. This is where the ability of the brain to create new learning pathways (neuroplasticity), comes in.
The ability to create new neural pathways within the brain leads to an increase in mental performance, especially in memory and focus and provides the conditions to keep the brain in optimum health as we get older. This ‘cognitive reserve’ helps the mind become resistant to any damage that may occur in the brain through trauma or illness.
An activity that has both physical and mental demands will likely have a higher impact on cognitive functioning over exercise or mental training alone. The best brain health workouts would involve coordination, rhythm, and thinking which use different parts of the brain at the same time.
Choosing the Right Physical Exercise for the Brain
Basically, doing any kind of exercise that increases your heartrate will help the ageing brain and reduce the likelihood of developing depression, dementia or Alzheimer’s as you age.
Whether your preference is for weight-training, running or doing yoga, the benefits of incorporating any kind of exercise into your life, especially for the brain, far outweigh the benefits of not exercising at all.
As a guideline consider:
- anything that is good for your heart is generally great for your brain
- Aerobic exercise, such as walking or running
- Any activity that incorporates coordination with a cardiovascular exercise, such as dancing
- Exercising in the morning before going to work leads to a spike in brain activity and prepares you for the demands for the rest of the day. It can also lead to increased retention of new information, and better ability to find solutions to complex situations
- At the gym, opt for circuit workouts, which quickly spike your heart rate and constantly redirect your attention
- Breathing-based yoga can help with an increase in attention and a reduction in perceived stress
- Jumping jacks are perfect if you feel mentally exhausted or ‘hit a wall’
So, your brain loves exercise. And doing more of it will help to keep it functioning at peak capacity well into your later years.