Do you find it easier to work through an issue while on the run? Does inspiration most often strike after a satisfying workout? These brain-clearing effects are not imagined.
New research is constructing a more complete picture of the varied and profound ways that exercising your body changes the brain, including promoting a positive outlook, better problem solving skills, a deeper sense of calm, improved recall, and heightened cognitive abilities.
If you deal with daily stress (who doesn’t?), this kind of mental clarity isn’t just a boon. It’s also a vital part of your ability to function and perform in important life roles—whether you’re a parent, professional, or caregiver.
Because stress has a way of clouding judgment, attracting negative thoughts and intense emotions, it can crowd out the ideas and solutions you need at that moment to address the stressful situation at hand.
In fact, starting your day with exercise has lasting benefits that can help you better manage emotions, think more strategically and remember things all day long.
How does it work? Exercise creates new neurons, increases blood flow, and regulates hormones. Harvard psychology professor Emily E. Bernstein, Ph.D.
, noticed what most of us experience after a morning run: She was a in a better mood, could think more clearly and work more effectively throughout the rest of her day.
To satisfy her personal and professional curiosity about how running helps to process negative emotions, she initiated a study that was recently published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
The study involved 80 subjects, half whom ran for 30 minutes while the other half stretched, after which they all watched a particularly sad and emotional film clip. Those who had run overcame their sadness brought on by the film clip much quicker than those who had merely stretched.
Related: What’s the Best Time of the Day to Exercise?
Bernstein’s conclusions align with the lived experiences of subjects who participated in another study conducted by trail runner and researcher Alison Boudreau, Ph.D., in 2010. Her study examined how trail running helped women feel happier and less overwhelmed at work.
Jogging Can Give Stress Relief and Improved Mood
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Aside from the physical health benefits of jogging or running, there are also many psychological benefits as well. Some of these include increased mental flexibility, confidence, stress relief, and the emotional boost of the runner's high.
Jogging and running are aerobic cardiovascular exercises. Such activity sends more nourishing blood to the brain, which can help you think more clearly. It also releases your natural mood-elevating compounds.
The challenges that running presents can also help you learn more about yourself, lessons that can carry over into other areas of your life.
Running can help train the mind as much as it trains the body. You learn to focus and determination to overcome obstacles and fatigue.
You get a new view of large and small problems and your capabilities to endure and overcome them.
The will and strength that gets your body through long runs or out the door when you'd rather skip a training run are what, in turn, gives you strength in other areas of your life.
It also leads to changes inside the brain itself. In a study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers scanned the brains of competitive distance runners.
What they found was that the runners had more connections between the frontal-parietal network and other areas of the brain that are associated with self-control and working memory.
The researchers believe that this is due to the increased aerobic capacity and cognitive demands of running.
Running may also help in the development of new brain cells. Exercise is one of the key factors associated with the growth of new neurons in the brain, a process known as neurogenesis. In animal studies, distance running, in particular, was associated with increased cell growth.
Evidence also suggests that running might have unique benefits for the brain. In a study comparing participants who engage in interval running training versus those who participate in a physically active lifestyle, the runners showed the greatest increase in cognitive flexibility. Running improves your ability to change between mental tasks quickly and efficiently.
Being more cognitively flexible means that when faced with problems you have the ability to quickly switch gears, adapt quickly to change, and come up with a new plan of action.
This is How to Exercise to Sharpen Your Mind
Credit: Emma Simpson / Unsplash
I am a huge believer in the power of exercise — for the body, and even more importantly for the mind.
As I have written about before, I never go into a big day without running first thing in the morning. I have found that morning exercise makes me mentally sharper throughout the day, and I am convinced that my morning running routine has changed my life and career more than any other habit.
After reading The Real Happy Pill: Power Up Your Brain by Moving Your Body, I know that science has undoubtedly proven the dramatic benefits of exercise on the brain.
In the book, author Anders Hansen, a physician and psychiatry specialist from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, cites the latest neuroscientific research to clearly show that exercise:
- Increases focus and concentration
- Boosts creativity
- Alleviates stress and anxiety
- Improves mood and happiness
- Strengthens memory
- Slows the brain’s aging process
The amazing thing is that the cognitive benefits of exercise can be felt with as little as a 30-minute walk per day. In fact, Hansen notes that walking is the best medicine for dementia and a daily walk could reduce the risk of dementia by 40%.
A daily walk is the minimum amount of physical activity needed to see good results, but in the book Hansen also lays out the most beneficial activity level for the brain overall (to experience the full range of benefits listed above).
He says the very best you can do for your brain is to run for 45 minutes, at least three times per week.
It is essential to raise your heart rate during exercise sessions, and he advises to focus on aerobic training over weightlifting to achieve maximum results for the brain.
He says it is very important to stick with your training routine — people who exercise regularly a few times a week for six months will experience the most positive changes.
While that gives a great general framework to build your exercise routine around, Hansen also provides some concrete exercise tips to produce each type of cognitive benefit, including:
Best Exercise Routine for Improved Mood and Happiness
- Go for a 30–40 minute run, three times per week
- Hit at least 70% of your max intensity — you can keep a consistent pace throughout, but make sure you break a sweat and feel winded at the end of the workout
- Biking, swimming, or any other type of cardio can substitute for running as long as the intensity level and workout duration stay the same
- It is essential to keep this up for at least three weeks to experience the full benefits
- If you suffer from depression, you must run (or similar exercise) three times per week, 45 minutes each time. It usually takes about six weeks to notice the changes
Best Exercise Routine for Stress and Anxiety Relief
- Choose cardio over weight training
- Exercise for 30–45 minutes, at least 2–3 times per week
- You must elevate your heart rate during training sessions
- Reach the point of fatigue/exhaustion once a week (e.g. via interval training)
Best Exercise Routine for Increased Concentration
- Go for a run instead of a walk, ideally for 30 minutes
- Your heart rate should hit 70–75% of its max capacity (130–140 beats per minute if you’re 40 years old, at least 125 bpm if you are 50)
- Exercise in the morning to experience the peak concentration benefits during your work day (the effect will drop off after a few hours, and most of us need to focus during the day vs. at night)
Best Exercise Routine for Enhanced Creativity
- Run for at least 20–30 minutes (or similar vigorous exercise). A walk is good as well, but will not be as effective as running
- The creativity boost will be felt for about two hours after exercise
- Do not go all out — creativity will actually go down in the hours after a very intense/strenuous workout
Best Exercise Routine for Improved Memory
- Alternate between cardio exercise and weight training (weight training does seem to improve associative memory, e.g. matching a name with a face)
- If you need to choose between cardio and weights, cardio should take the priority since it is more beneficial for memory
- Don’t exercise to exhaustion — a walk or a light jog is sufficient
- Memory improvement takes place over several months, so it is important to keep at it
Best Exercise Routine to Halt the Brain’s Aging Process
- Walk for 30 minutes every day, at least five days a week (or run/bike/swim for 20 minutes, three times a week, which produces similar results)
- A daily walk is far more important than a daily crossword puzzle
Best Exercise Routine for Children and Teenagers
- It is best for children to be active for at least 30 minutes, at least a few times per week. Keeping this up for 2–3 months leads to permanent benefits including better arithmetic ability, increased creativity, and improved executive functioning (planning, concentration, impulse control, etc.)
- Kids should do whatever they enjoy (running, playing, tennis, soccer, etc.), but it is essential that they elevate the heart rate during exercise, ideally getting up to around 150 bpm
4 Ways Exercise Affects the Brain
Go out for a jog and exercise your brain, too. Exercise has positive effects on mental, emotional and brain health, and even those with dementia can benefit.
March 11-17, 2019 is Brain Awareness Week, marking the Dana Foundation’s global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. In terms of promoting brain health in ourselves and our families — a topic we know our readers have a lot of interest in — one of the most exciting new areas of study in brain science is the effect of exercise on the brain.
We spoke with Judy Cameron, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Science Outreach at the University of Pittsburgh, to learn more about recent discoveries and the latest advice on exercise and the brain. The biggest takeaway for seniors and caregivers is this: No form of exercise is too little or too late when it comes to brain health.
Four Ways Exercise Changes the Brain for the Better
1. Exercise Wards Off Anxiety and Depression
Perhaps because exercise stimulates the nervous system and releases a variety of chemicals in the brain, it has been proven to help with anxiety and depression. Says one recent review of the literature published in “Frontiers in Psychiatry,” “the evidence suggests that exercise can improve depressive symptoms and this is observed even in those suffering from major depressive disorder.”
2. Exercise Increases Blood Flow to the Brain
Studies that have been done on both primates and people have shown that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, even in those who are older and have been sedentary. Dr. Judy Cameron explains: “You’re getting more oxygen to your brain, and you’re getting more nutrients. More blood flow to the brain means that cells have more fuel to operate.”
3. Exercise Protects Your Brain Cells
“A very important thing exercise does is it turns on the expression of specific genes,” says Dr.
Cameron, “and many of the genes it expresses are neuroprotective: they cause the production and the secretion of proteins that we call neurotrophic factors, meaning they cause brain cells to make substances that protect them from damage.
” This is critical, because some chemicals in the environment (such as pesticides) can enter the brain and be toxic or destructive to brain cells. If you’re producing neurotrophic factors, it has a protective effect.
4. Exercise Helps You Produce New Brain Cells
Not only does exercise increase the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, it also increases the production of glial cells, which are the brain’s support network: These cells have protective effects and support the function of neurons, and they are produced throughout the brain. In tests done specifically on older individuals, it seems to be the glial cell production that is affected most strongly with exercise.
How and When Should Seniors Exercise for Maximum Brain Benefit?
The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise – HelpGuide.org
What are the mental health benefits of exercise?
Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise can improve your physical health and your physique, trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active.
People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. And it’s also powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges.
Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood.
And you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference.
No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better.
Exercise and depression
Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication—but without the side-effects, of course. As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H.
Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.
In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.
How Exercise Can Jog the Memory
Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Getty Images
From our archives.
It’s well established that exercise substantially changes the human brain, affecting both thinking and emotions.
But a sophisticated, multifaceted new study suggests that the effects may be more nuanced than many scientists previously believed.
Whether you gain all of the potential cognitive and mood benefits from exercise may depend on when and how often you work out, as well as on the genetic makeup of your brain.
For the experiment, published last month in Neuroscience, researchers in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., recruited 54 adults, ages 18 to 36, from the college and the surrounding community. The volunteers were healthy but generally sedentary; none exercised regularly.
Gretchen Reynolds on the science of fitness.
During their first visit to the lab, they completed a series of questionnaires about their health and mood, including how anxious they were both at that moment and in general.
They also gave blood for genetic testing. Earlier studies had shown that exercise can increase levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, which is thought to play a role in the positive effects of exercise on thinking.
But some people produce less BDNF after exercise than others because they have a variation in the gene that controls BDNF production, though it’s unknown whether they derive less cognitive benefit from exercise as a result.
So the scientists wanted to determine each volunteer’s BDNF gene status.
Then the group submitted to a memory test, consisting of pictures of objects flashed across a computer screen. Soon after, another set of pictures appeared, and the volunteers were asked to note, with keystrokes, whether they’d seen each particular image before.
This task involves a different part of the brain from the one most often focused on in studies of exercise and memory, says David Bucci, an associate professor of psychology and brain science at Dartmouth, who oversaw the study.
Other experiments typically examine the effect of exercise on the hippocampus, the brain’s primary memory center, he says, but the object-recognition task involves activity in the perirhinal cortex, a portion of the brain essential to remembering particular things or objects and whether they happen to be new in your experience.
Without a healthy perirhinal cortex, you might recall where you’ve put your car keys (a hippocampal memory task), but not what car keys are.
Finally, after completing the tests, the volunteers were randomly assigned to exercise or not during the next four weeks. Half began a supervised program of walking or jogging four times a week for at least 30 minutes. The other half remained sedentary.
After a month, the volunteers returned to the lab for retesting. But first, some exercised. Half of the exercising group walked or jogged before the testing; half did not. Ditto for the sedentary group: Half exercised that day for the first time since the start of the study; the rest did not.
The earlier tests of memory and mood were repeated.
The results were, in certain aspects, a surprise. As expected, many of the volunteers who’d been exercising for the past month significantly improved their scores on the memory and mood tests.
But not all of them did. In general, those volunteers who had exercised for the past month and who worked out on the day of retesting performed the best on the memory exam.
They also tended to report less anxiety than other volunteers.
Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.
Interestingly, while exercising before the test didn’t improve the memory scores of those who’d remained sedentary for the past month, it did increase their self-reported anxiety levels. They were more jittery than they had been on the first lab visit.
Perhaps most intriguing, though, was what the researchers discovered when they compared the volunteers’ BDNF gene variants and their scores on the memory test.
They found that those with the variant that blunts BDNF production after exercise — a fairly common variation, existing in about 30 percent of people of European Caucasian heritage — did not improve their memories, even if they exercised regularly. (No consumer test exists to check for the variant.)
What all of this means for people who are hoping that exercise will improve their minds is unclear, Dr. Bucci says, but it does suggest that the interplay of physical activity and brainpower is more complex than we have perhaps yet acknowledged.
Some people’s ability to recall objects, for instance, “may respond less robustly” to exercise than other people’s, he says, if their genetic makeup doesn’t promote the release of BDNF.
But the overall message of this study and of ongoing research in his lab, Dr. Bucci adds, is that exercise generally enhances the ability to remember.
The people who did improve their memory test scores, he points out, were invariably those who’d exercised throughout the previous month and again the morning of the testing, suggesting a powerful cumulative effect from the exercise sessions, he says.
More generally, Dr. Bucci says, there are many types of memory involving many different areas within the brain, and few seem unaffected by regular, moderate exercise, although the effects may be inconsistent from person to person.
“The current data strongly suggests that people should be physically active” if they wish to enjoy a sturdy, unporous memory in the long term, Dr. Bucci says. Walk or jog regularly, in other words, and most of us can expect to continue recognizing our keys as keys.
Gretchen Reynolds is the author of “The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer” (Hudson Street Press, 2012).
This Is Your Brain On Jogs: How Exercise Affects And Improves Your Brain
Last Updated on June 9, 2020
Healthy eating is not eating to lose weight. If you’re a professional or entrepreneur, you’ll understand that while eating to look good is great, it’s even more important to consume the right foods to help you perform, work, and earn better.
This health stuff has levels to it. There are foods that will aid you in improving your brainpower, increasing your energy levels, and taking your working performance to the next level.
- There are habits that will make your life easier and give you a great body and high performing mind on auto-pilot, and there are others that will do the opposite.
- In this article, I’m going to share with you 15 healthy eating tips and habits that will help skyrocket your energy levels, heighten your focus, and give you the body you want while also being able to perform at an elite level every day.
- Read on if you’re ready to make healthy eating part of your lifestyle and not another crash diet.
1. Eat More Protein
Protein is the king of macronutrients. This is why eating protein is one of the best healthy eating tips. Not only does sufficient protein intake aid in the growth of your muscles and help you recover from training better, but it’s also going to keep you fuller throughout the day.
This is going to lead to far fewer binges, improve your overall focus, and prevent you from reaching for sugary foods. Some good sources of lean protein are white meat, low-fat beef, eggs, whey protein, and Greek Yogurt.
Action point: Aim to eat consume around 1g protein per LB of bodyweight. If you weight around 170LBs, you should shoot for around 170g protein per day.
2. Make Breakfast Optional
Breakfast being the most important meal of the day is a complete myth. Food marketers and cereal companies make a lot of money from pushing this message. There are people who are hungry in the morning, but there are many who are not.
You should not be encouraged to eat breakfast if you don’t want to. If you’re very sedentary (office worker, professional) and spend most of your day at your desk, it’s probably a good idea to skip breakfast.
If you’re very active, have a low body fat percentage, and have high energy demands in the morning, it may be a good idea to have breakfast.
Action point: Skip breakfast if you are not hungry. If you are to have breakfast, opt for a high-protein option, such as protein shakes, eggs, and bacon or smoked salmon.
3. Track Your Food
Food tracking is a great habit to build. Studies show that people underestimate their daily caloric intake by as much as 50%.
If you believe you’re consuming 2000 calories per day, you’re probably consuming near 3000. By tracking your food, you are staying accountable to yourself and more importantly, learning what is inside foods. Learning the different macronutrient content (protein, carbs, fats) of food is invaluable.
Action point: Use MyFitnessPal app to track your food 4-5 days per week. Have at least 2 days off as over-tracking can lead to you becoming over-obsessive with food.
4. More Eggs Are Good
Another huge myth is that eggs are bad for your cholesterol. This is false.
Despite fears surrounding egg consumption and high cholesterol, research indicates no measurable increase in heart disease or diabetes risk from eating up to 6–12 eggs per week.
Eggs are a great source of vitamin B, high in anti-oxidants and protein, and as long as you control your overall calories, there is no negative health risk to consuming eggs.
Action point: Eat eggs as you please. Scrambled, poached, or boiled is the best way to cook them.
5. Say ‘No’ to Vegetable Oil
Aside from being highly processed, vegetable oil is composed of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are heat sensitive. This means that when vegetable oil is used for cooking and subjected heat, the bonds in the PUFAs are shifted and turn into trans fats that cause oxidative stress and wreak havoc on our health.
This can have negative effects on the gut, arteries, white blood cells, and gene replication that can promote brain disorders in the future.
Action point: Cook using traditional fats such as olive oil, peanut oil, and butter.
Build Your Muscles, Build Your Brain
The body was designed to be pushed, and when we push our bodies, we push our brains, too. Learning and memory evolved in concert with the motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food. As far as our brains are concerned, if we’re not moving, there’s no real need to learn anything.
In researching exercise and attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), we’ve learned that exercise improves learning on three levels: It optimizes your mindset, by improving alertness, attention, and motivation.
It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for learning new information.
And it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory and learning.
Several progressive schools have experimented with exercise to find out if working out before class boosts a child’s reading ability and her performance in other subjects. Guess what? It does.
We know now that the brain is flexible, or plastic, in the parlance of neuroscientists — more Play-Doh than porcelain. It is an adaptable organ that can be molded by input in much the same way as a muscle can be sculpted by lifting barbells. The more you use it, the stronger and more flexible it becomes.
Far from being hardwired, as scientists once envisioned it, the ADHD brain is constantly being rewired. I’m here to teach you how to be your own electrician.
[Read: Take It Outside! Treating ADHD with Exercise]
Exercise: A Drug for Your Brain?
6 Pillars of Brain Health – Physical Exercise
In addition to improved heart health, regular endurance exercise, like running, swimming or biking, can also foster new brain cell growth and preserve existing brain cells.
Build your endurance.BUILD ENDURANCE with Aerobic ExerciseNational Institute of Health – Sample Exercises: Endurance
- 5 days a week
- 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity
- Moderate intensity means you can talk but not sing while exercising
- Aim for your target heart rate
- Walk, hike, bike, swim, dance, or just move
- 3-5 times per week
- 10 minutes each session
- Hold each stretch 30 to 90 seconds
- Stretch muscles through a full range of motion
- Tai Chi, yoga, and stretching
- 2 times per week
- 1 set per muscle group, with 8-12 repetitions per set
- Exercise all major muscle groups with a 2 day rest in between
- Squats, lunges, planks, bicep curls, tricep press-down, shoulder press, etc.
- 2-3 days a week
- Sit to stand
- Stand with feet touching side by side
- Stand heel to toe
- Walk backwards and sideways
- Walk on heels and toes
- Stand on one leg
- Yoga or Tai Chi class
Exercise improves blood flow and memory; it stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance learning, mood and thinking. Exercise reduces the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. Build activity into your daily life: dance, wash your car, walk with a friend, jog, play golf, or tennis.
When you exercise keep your heart rate in the target zone. Check out your target rate.
Target Heart Rates from The American Heart Association
The exercise effect
When Jennifer Carter, PhD, counsels patients, she often suggests they walk as they talk. “I work on a beautiful wooded campus,” says the counseling and sport psychologist at the Center for Balanced Living in Ohio.
Strolling through a therapy session often helps patients relax and open up, she finds. But that's not the only benefit. As immediate past president of APA's Div.
47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology), she's well aware of the mental health benefits of moving your muscles.
“I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed,” she says.
Unfortunately, graduate training programs rarely teach students how to help patients modify their exercise behavior, Carter says, and many psychologists aren't taking the reins on their own. “I think clinical and counseling psychologists could do a better job of incorporating exercise into treatment,” she says.
“Exercise is something that psychologists have been very slow to attend to,” agrees Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action.”
Researchers are still working out the details of that action: how much exercise is needed, what mechanisms are behind the boost exercise brings, and why — despite all the benefits of physical activity — it's so hard to go for that morning jog. But as evidence piles up, the exercise-mental health connection is becoming impossible to ignore.
If you've ever gone for a run after a stressful day, chances are you felt better afterward. “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” Otto says. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”
But the effects of physical activity extend beyond the short-term. Research shows that exercise can also help alleviate long-term depression.
Some of the evidence for that comes from broad, population-based correlation studies. “There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” says James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University.
The evidence comes from experimental studies as well. Blumenthal has explored the mood-exercise connection through a series of randomized controlled trials.
In one such study, he and his colleagues assigned sedentary adults with major depressive disorder to one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy or a placebo pill.
After four months of treatment, Blumenthal found, patients in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission than did the patients on the placebo. Exercise, he concluded, was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2007).
Blumenthal followed up with the patients one year later. The type of treatment they received during the four-month trial didn't predict remission a year later, he found.
However, subjects who reported regular exercise at the one-year follow-up had lower depression scores than did their less active counterparts (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2010).
“Exercise seems not only important for treating depression, but also in preventing relapse,” he says.
Why Exercise Is Good for Your Brain
Source: Jacob Postuma
As JPM Healthcare week kicks off in San Francisco, the conversation around healthcare turns clairvoyant as experts weigh in on their predictions for the big trends in the coming year. One of the main topics: Will this be the year we finally see a successful drug for Alzheimer’s disease?
But rather than play a guessing game, why don’t we look at what we know actually prevents dementia—improving your lifestyle. This article is the first in a five-part series focused on evidence-based methods to prevent dementia through lifestyle. Let’s begin with exercise.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
The Federal Government first published the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans1 in 2008. Using science-based advice, these guidelines provide an overview of how much exercise Americans should perform each week (i.e.
, at least two days of muscle strengthening activity combined with at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise).
These guidelines address both healthy individuals and those at increased risk of chronic disease, stressing how exercise can prevent the effects of certain chronic diseases, including dementia.
An updated edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines was released in late-2018. The primary update was a section dedicated to the relationship between physical activity and brain health.
This section explains the benefits of exercise for cognition, sleep, depression, anxiety, and overall quality of life.
The government’s recognition of brain health finally publicizes its integral role in overall health and highlights how exercise benefits not just your body, but also your mind.
How Exercise Improves Brain Health
There are many ways exercise improves cognitive health. Aerobic exercise (also known as cardio) raises your heart rate and increases blood flow to your brain. Your increased heart rate is accompanied by harder and faster breathing depending on the intensity of your workout.
As your increased breathing pumps more oxygen into your bloodstream, more oxygen is delivered to your brain. This leads to neurogenesis2—or the production of neurons—in certain parts of your brain that control memory and thinking.
Neurogenesis increases brain volume, and this cognitive reserve is believed to help buffer against the effects of dementia.
Another factor mediating the link between cognition and exercise is neurotrophins, which are proteins that aid neuron survival and function3.
It has been noted that exercise promotes the production of neurotrophins, leading to greater brain plasticity, and therefore, better memory and learning.
In addition to neurotrophins, exercise also results in an increase in neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin and norepinephrine, which boost information processing and mood4.
Exercise’s Lasting Effects on Cognition
In 2017, the Lancet released its landmark research commission on dementia prevention, intervention, and care that demonstrated that 35 percent of risk factors for developing dementia can be attributed to modifiable lifestyle traits. A significant component: exercise3.
In a longitudinal study conducted by Dr. Zhu from the University of Minnesota, exercise tests were administered to a group of participants to determine their fitness levels. Those who were the most active in 1985 tended to still be on the fit side of the spectrum decades later. That same “fit” cohort also performed better on cognitive tests decades later5.
Furthermore, exercise gives hope to people with a rare genetic mutation that programs them for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Although exercise cannot completely counteract their genetic predisposition, people who exercised for at least 150 minutes per week had better cognitive outcomes compared to those who did not.
Incredibly, exercise could potentially delay their dementia onset by up to 15 years6.
Does Workout Type Matter?
Both the type of workout and method of staying fit are important to whether or not you experience cognitive benefits. It’s not enough to just count calories to stay thin, you still need to exercise.
In fact, there is a term in medicine for people who are not healthy overall but manage to stay thin: TOFI (Thin Outside Fat Inside)7.
Rather than exhibiting fat externally and appearing overweight, these individuals carry weight viscerally, around their internal organs. This is harmful to overall health—including brain health.
Between three sets of people—individuals who lost weight through restrictive eating, people who lost weight through exercise, and a group that used a combination of the two—only the groups who had exercise as part of their weight loss regimen noted an improvement in cognition8.
It’s most important to concentrate on the type of exercise you perform if your goal is to maximize your cognitive health. A multi-component routine focused on balance, flexibility, and aerobic fitness is better than focusing on just one type of exercise.
For example, tai chi has been heralded as an example of an all-encompassing exercise routine that significantly enhances cognition.
A meta-analysis of research on tai chi and cognition found tai chi exhibited a greater effect on cognitive function than other types of exercise9.
However, any exercise is better for your brain than none at all.
So, pick your exercise of choice! Go walking, running, swimming, hiking, or biking. Enjoy the fresh air. Get in touch with nature. And reap the many health benefits of exercise—both physical and mental.