Believe it or not, exercise builds brain power in a way that not even thinking does. Exercise seems to positively change the brain, and slow or reverse its physical decay.
Studies show that exercise:
- builds a brain that resists physical shrinkage
- enhances cognitive flexibility
- increases your heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain
- aids your body’s release of a surplus of hormones, which supports the growth of brain cells
- stimulates brain plasticity by repairing old connections and stimulating new connections between brain cells.
Many studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus to those who don’t.
Exercise also has benefits for our mental well-being. For example:
- The “runners high” is associated with a drop in stress hormones.
- Another effect of running is more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Interestingly, antidepressant medications also work by stimulating the growth of neurons in the hippocampus. At times exercise is even prescribed as an antidepressant “medication” with positive side effects unlike most medications.
- Exercise may help improve sleep and mood, and help reduce stress and anxiety.
Here are some tips for exercising to boost your brain power:
- Try activities with both physical and mental demands, such as ballroom dancing and martial arts. The best brain health workouts involve those that integrate different parts of the brain such as coordination, rhythm and strategy.
- More intense exercise usually provides more benefits. However, if you are just starting to exercise, it is important to work your way up to higher intensity work outs to avoid setbacks and injuries.
- Exercise in the morning. Exercise before going to work not only spikes brain activity and prepares you for mental stresses, but also increases retention of new information and improves your ability to react to complex situations.
- The amount of exercise required to see benefits is 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (think walking) most days of the week or 150 minutes a week. If that seems overwhelming, start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount you exercise by 5-10 minutes every week. If you don’t like to walk, any activity that gets your heart rate up will achieve positive benefits for your brain.
Remember, it’s never too late to start exercising, and the best thing you can do is avoid physical inactivity. Whatever exercise you choose, commit to establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication. After all, they say that exercise is medicine.
Steve Moore, MS, is an exercise physiologist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. He is available for exercise physiology consultations, fitness assessments and personal training appointments. Call 612-863-5178 to make an appointment.