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Exercise For Better Brain Health
- Exercise reduces the probability of some developing significant health issues, like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and many others.
- Aerobic exercise can increase brain volume and grow your hippocampus, a component of your limbic system in your brain which stores memories and aids with spacial navigation.
- Exercise has been shown to decrease risk of increasingly common later-life neurological diseases, like dementia, which negatively affects memory, cognitive clarity, language, and judgment.
- Though stretching exercises are helpful for flexibility and overall health, aerobic and cardio activity are the most important for keeping the brain sharp.
- Exercise releases “happy” chemicals like endorphins, which interact with opiate receptors to reduce pain and make you feel great. Exercise also positively impacts many other hormones in the body, including cortisol, insulin, catecholamines like epinephrine, neurotransmitters like dopamine, and more.
- For best brain function and neurological benefit, be sure to get at least 120 minutes of exercise per week. Four 30-minute sessions works well for most.
- When dealing with chronic illness, cardiovascular exercise like jogging or extended hiking can be difficult. Any movement is better than none, so those with chronic illnesses or injuries might try swimming, recumbent biking, practicing restorative yoga or tai chi, and other, gentler exercises.
- You don’t have a join a gym to get your sweat on. Think about ways you can get your heart pumping without paying a monthly fee, like parking at the other end of the lot and jogging into the grocery store, or playing at the park with your children, for example.
- Aerobic activity in the morning can stimulate your brain early-on in the day, boosting your ability to think clearly, process information, and remember important tasks through the afternoon and evening.
There’s no shortage of reasons why most people should start getting more exercise into their daily routine. Some of the biggest ones include reducing chances of suffering from serious health problems like diabetes, stroke, and disease, while other, more personal logic might include the desire to lose weight, prevent depression, or lower blood pressure. Still, if you need yet another piece of motivation to add to your list, how about the fact that exercising helps to clear out some of the fog associated with aging, while promoting better brain health?1
A study recently conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular bouts of aerobic exercise (the stuff that gets your heart pumping faster), can be connected to an increased growth in the size of the hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. In other words, the more you work out, the stronger your brain becomes.2
The positive correlation between exercise and brain health is more important than ever today, now that researchers are discovering a new case of dementia is diagnosed once every four seconds. By the year 2050, statistics show that more than 115 million people throughout the world will be suffering from dementia.3
So how exactly can exercise promote better brain function, and how can you get more of it into your daily routine (without having to join a gym)?
The Relationship Between Exercise and the Brain
As we age, the growth and development of new brain cells starts to slow, causing our brain tissue to physically shrink over time. Studies have shown, however, that exercise could be the solution to reversing that trend. For instance, one study of healthy people between the ages of 60 and 79 found significant brain volume increases after the participants took part in six months of aerobic fitness training.4
On the other hand, no changes happened for the control group who only took part in toning and stretching exercises. The researchers therefore concluded that cardiovascular fitness has a significant part to play in overall brain health.
Exercise can help brain function, both indirectly and directly. For instance, the direct benefits of exercise generally come from its ability to lower insulin resistance and stimulate the release of growth chemicals into the brain, while the indirect benefits come from the fact that exercise improves sleep and mood, leading to clearer thought processes.5
Interestingly, many studies indicate that the areas of the brain responsible for controlling memory and thinking are often larger in people who exercise, than in people who don’t.6
In other words, regular activity literally gives you a bigger, more productive brain.
The Relationship Between Exercise and Hormones
Just as you might use specially-formulated plant food to help a flower grow and thrive, the chemical known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) does the same for your brain. BDNF is responsible for stimulating the proliferation and growth of brain cells—particularly within the hippocampus. Research has discovered that the more you exercise, the more BDNF your body produces naturally.7 Because you have more BDNF in your system with regular exercise, your brain receives the nutrients it needs to grow and thrive, improving everything from thinking processes, to reasoning, memory, and more.
Of course, BDNF isn’t the only hormone worth mentioning when it comes to exercise and brain function. Exercise also releases dopamine—the substance which convinces your brain you feel happy, and therefore fights back against conditions like depression and anxiety.8
Since depression can slow the brain’s ability to process information, making it more difficult to concentrate and reach decisions, it makes sense that reducing the symptoms would improve overall brain function.
This is also important to consider in relation to stress. If hormones like BDNF can effectively make your brain younger, then other hormones, such as cortisol, are responsible for prematurely aging it. Cortisol is the hormone that gets into your brain when you experience stress, leaving you feeling flustered and unable to think properly. Exercise lowers the cortisol levels, promoting the generation of new nerve cells, and giving you back your focus.9
You Can Exercise Whenever and Wherever You Like
Obviously, getting more exercise is a good idea—no matter your age or circumstances. However, you don’t have to dish out the last few dollars of your paycheck for an expensive gym membership to get the benefits you want. Almost all of the research related to the connection between brain function and exercise has examined easy, no-gym-required movement like walking and aerobic exercise. This reiterates the point that anything which gets your blood pumping is enough to start improving your brain health.10 The best news is that you can skip the sweaty locker room and opt for your favorite nature trail, and still reap all the rewards!
Anything from a walk to a set of sprints counts as brain-boosting exercise.
Whether you’re riding a bike, jogging, running, or walking, experts suggest that around 120 minutes of exercise a week is adequate when it comes to enhancing brain function. Other recommendations advise getting involved with around thirty minutes of moderate intensity exercise three or four times a week. The best idea is generally to start slow, and work up towards more exercise as your muscles get used to the fatigue associated with regular activity.
Remember—you don’t have to walk, or run either. You can also consider a number of different moderate-intensity activities, including:
- Circuit weight training
- HIIT training
How do you know if your exercise is more than just light activity? During moderate exercise, you’re breathing increases noticeably. You can still hold a short conversation, but you don’t have the lung capacity or breath to sing. You might start sweating after about fifteen minutes of the activity.
Even regular household chores, like cleaning, raking leaves, or mopping the floor can be enough to induce the light sweat that indicates you’re getting the exercise you need.
If you don’t have the motivation or discipline to continue with regular activity alone (it’s tough!), you can always try joining a class or working out with a friend. That way, you can enjoy the social aspect of exercise as well as the extra accountability. If you’re able, you might even choose to hire a personal trainer who will help you to set goals and track your progress over time.11
Quick Tips for Choosing the Right Exercise
If you’re still unsure which exercises or workouts can boost your brainpower, the following tips might help:
- Aerobic exercise is ideal for the brain and body. Not only does it enhance brain function, but it actually repairs damaged brain cells.12
- Anything that is good for your heart is probably good for your brain too!13
- Look for activities that incorporate cardiovascular exercise and coordination to help enhance your memory and focus.
- Exercise in the morning before you go to work. Not only does this spike brain activity, it also helps prepare you (and your brain) for the mental stresses ahead. This makes your brain stronger and increases the chances that you’ll be able to retain new information throughout the day. When you exercise in the first part of the day, you’re also more likely to sleep better at night (and sleep gives your brain a chance to drain its “glymphatic” fluids, something vital to neurological health and detoxification).
- If you’re getting mentally exhausted, a few jumping jacks can be enough to revitalize your brain in a pinch.
The best way to keep yourself motivated in a long-term exercise routine is to focus on making exercise more of a lifestyle than a hobby. Workouts aren’t restricted to the time you spend under the care of a personal trainer or paying for expensive gym sessions—they can also include the everyday activities that help you get more out of your body. For instance, taking the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator can be enough to deliver a bout of fantastic aerobic exercise. What’s more, this tiny amount of resistance exercise can increase your body’s levels of GLUT4, a substance that pushes calories to be stored in muscles instead of body fat.14
If you don’t have a lot of stairs at work or at home, then you might simply try walking a little more. For instance, park your car a little further from work than you usually would and walk the rest of the way.
Even standing up more at your desk rather than sitting down for a number of hours per day can be enough to help you stay more active in your daily routine.
Exercising with Chronic Illness
When dealing with any kind of chronic illness, from Lyme disease to Rheumatoid Arthritis to diabetes, you might find exercise more difficult. Maybe your muscles and joints are so painful that walking is out of the question. Or perhaps your level of fatigue means that just getting out of bed and walking to the kitchen is an accomplishment, on bad days.
You have to listen to your body and do what you’re able to do, regarding working out and moving the body. For someone with severe chronic Lyme disease and co-infections, it’s unrealistic to expect you to start training for a half marathon or participate in two-hour strength and conditioning classes. There are, however, exercises you can try at home that will still give your brain a bit of a boost. Here are some exercise ideas that won’t crash your adrenals and land you in bed for the following three days:
–Recumbent Bike or Desk Cycle: For anyone who struggles with upright exercise (especially if you struggle with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or other autonomic nervous system disorders, or if you have trouble walking), a recumbent bike could be a good option for aerobic exercise. You can buy a small desk cycle—some as inexpensive as $30—and try this from the safety of your own home.
–Seated or Bed Yoga: For those who are bedridden, it’s important to stay moving, keep your blood flowing, and prevent deconditioning. Get started by searching Youtube for “chair yoga” or “bed yoga,” all exercises that can be done from a seated or horizontal position.
–Swimming: Swimming can provide excellent aerobic activity, without the need for your body to support its own weight.
–Yoga or Pilates: On tough days full of symptoms and fatigue, a short “restorative yoga” session might help. Restorative yoga is very gentle, with minimal movement or switching between poses. Many of the poses are done seated or lying down, with support like pillows and bolsters, Also, the poses are typically held for 2-3 minutes, giving sufficient time to relax into the stretch without getting your heart rate too high. While this is usually not an aerobic practice, it’s still good for promoting lymphatic flow and circulation.
–Weight Training: There’s no doubt about it—weight training is a beneficial addition to any exercise routine. The best news for chronically ill is that you can start small. There’s no need for intimidating bars with piles of weights on each side. You can easily purchase a set of light weights, even starting with 1- or 3-pound ones, then eventually graduate up to 10-pounds or higher. Check out my recent podcast about Blood Flow Restriction Bands, as these wearable bands allow you to gain muscle faster while lifting lighter weights.
–Tai Chi: Tai chi is a Chinese martial art involving slow movement and deep breathing. This is an excellent way to calm your sympathetic nervous system (focusing on the breath and relaxation), as well as get a bit of a workout. Tai chi does not put a lot of stress on the muscles and joints, but instead, provides a low-impact way to get the blood in your body flowing.
–Interval Walking: You’ve likely heard of interval training for runners, a great cardio workout where you alternate jogging with short bursts of sprinting. If you’re not up to running, but feel okay walking, you can try to do the same, just at a slower pace. Walk your normal pace for 3-4 minutes, then increase your speed for 1 minute. Keep going with the cycle for as long as you’re able. The “walking sprint” increases your heart rate, allowing some aerobic activity, followed by slowing down to recover.
Whichever exercise you choose, remember to take it slow, and assess how you feel before, during, and after. It’s great to push yourself, so you (and your brain) can become stronger and fitter, but you don’t want to exercise so hard that you experience a setback or a strong return of symptoms.
It’s helpful to set goals, keep track of your workouts, and try to do a little bit more each day or each week. Walk just a few more steps. Increase your weight by one pound. These little challenges will help your body learn to adapt, allowing you to grow and work your way to better physical (and mental) health.
Exercise Your Brain, Every Day
The more time you spend exercising your brain, the more it will grow and continue to thrive even as natural processes like aging fight to slow you down. In fact, studies have found that regular activity can even promote more effective executive function within the brain cells.15
Executive function includes the cognitive abilities like focusing on set tasks, organizing, and thinking at an abstract level. It even refers to the ability to be able to plan comprehensively for upcoming events, and interacts with your working memory (such as keeping a phone number in your mind while you’re dialing).
There’s plenty of evidence to prove that exercise has a positive impact on not only the health of your body, but also your brain, emotions, and spirit. In other words, the best thing you can do for your health, and your future, is to start looking for ways to get more active—even if you choose the simplest ways possible. Take the stairs instead of waiting for an elevator, go out for a run with a friend, or buy a dog that take for a walk each day. Every single step is making you stronger, and also importantly, building your brain.
- DiSalvo, David. “How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “How Physical Activity Can Affect Your Brain.” Sustainable Brain Health Institute. Mayo Clinic, 19 May 2017. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- “Dementia Statistics.” The Global Voice on Dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease International, n.d. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Gomez-Pinilla, Fernando, and Charles Hillman. “The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities.” Comprehensive Physiology 3.1 (2013): 403-28. PubMed. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- “Study: Physical Activity Impacts Overall Quality of Sleep.” Physical Activity Impacts Overall Quality of Sleep. National Sleep Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- “Boost Your Thinking Skills with Exercise.” Harvard Health Letter. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Apr. 2014. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Servick, Kelly. “How Exercise Beefs Up the Brain.” Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 13 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- “Exercise for Depression.” Moodzone: Stress, Anxiety, and Depression. National Health Services England, 02 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Henderson, Laura Wallace. “What Kind of Exercise Reduces Cortisol Levels?” Livestrong. Leaf Group, 14 Aug. 2017. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- “Major New Exercise Guidelines Announced.” Lifestyle and Exercise. National Health Services England, 11 July 2011. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Fetters, K. Aleisha. “7 Ways Exercise Makes You Smarter.” Fitness Magazine. Meredith Women’s Network, 30 Mar. 2017. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Eve, David. “Brain Cell Regrowth Linked to Benefits of Exercise, Sexual Behaviors and Reproductive Issues.” EurekAlert! The Global Source for Science News. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 10 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Bergland, Christopher. “Scientists Discover Why Exercise Makes You Smarter.”Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Moore, Rusty. “Gone in 60 Seconds: One Minute of Activity to Avoid Storing Calories of a Meal as Body Fat.” Fitness Black Book. N.p., 01 Aug. 2017. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
- Cohen, Jennifer. “6 Ways Exercise Makes You Smarter.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.