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What Are The Best Exercises for Brain Health?

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What do you think about when you hear the word, exercise? Perhaps you think that you need more of it. Or that you really don’t want to today. Maybe you’re a fitness fanatic and simply hearing the word gets you amped and ready to go. Or, maybe you avoid it because you're not sure how to start. Regardless of how you interpret exercise, one thing is true -- activity is essential for the longevity of your physical and mental wellbeing [1].

Exercise is defined as any movement that makes your body work and burn energy (calories). Americans have traded in active days, tending to the farm and doing physical labor, for modern conveniences such as cars, escalators, and sedentary office life. But this swap has left our nation sad and sick. 

Regular activity not only changes your physique and physical health; it gives gifts that enhance your mind. Exercise works wonders on your general mood and mental health, quality of sleep, and immune system. But if that's not enough of a reason to throw on your tennies and get hopping, recent research has proven that regular exercise can prevent cognitive impairment, boost brain function, and promote neuron cell growth. Move it or lose it!

Benefits of exercise 

The benefits of an active lifestyle have been extensively studied and results have shown tremendous health benefits. Exercise sustains a healthy body by improving your circulation, keeping your bones strong, promoting detoxification, and increasing your energy levels. Here are just a few highlights - how exercise does good for your bod.

Increased energy

Exercise when you're tired? Sounds like the worst idea ever. Even though getting off the couch and sweating seems like the opposite of what you should be (and want to be) doing when you're tired, getting fit for a few can escalate energy levels. 

Researchers found that sedentary, healthy adults who engaged in as little as 20 minutes of low-to moderate aerobic exercise a day, for three days per week, reported increased energy and less fatigue [2]. New research also suggests that regular exercise can increase energy levels among those suffering from chronic fatigue-related medical conditions, like cancer and heart disease [3].

Weight loss and muscle tone 

Calorie balance is one of the most influential factors when it comes to your weight management - in addition to body composition, hormones, genetics, food quality, and gut bacteria. Your body expends energy by maintaining normal function, eating and digesting food, and physical activity. Exercise both burns energy and increases your metabolism [4]. 

Physical activity, particularly weight training, stimulates muscle building and growth. Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, even when at rest. So basically the more lean muscle you have, compared to fat, the more calories you burn. Weight training also helps improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis. Adding a mix of aerobic exercise and resistance training to your workout routine can optimize fat loss while maintaining muscle tone [5]. 

Reduced risk of disease 

Exercise is associated with preventing over 35 chronic diseases including metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, depression, osteoarthritis, and cancer [6]. Just think of it on a basic level - it helps prevent diabetes by increasing the uptake of blood sugar, and prevents cardiovascular disease by improving circulation. The simple functions and movements have profound results. Daily activity is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of disease. 

Brain benefits of physical activity 

Physical activity perks extend beyond energy, body composition, and disease prevention. Exercise contributes to a better brain and preferred mood. 

Mood 

When we exercise, hormones such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, are released. Endorphins give that post-exercise high that keeps you coming back for more. They also reduce pain and discomfort while improving your self-esteem. Serotonin also gives some of those high and happy feelings, also while regulating your mood. Dopamine is the pleasurable habit-forming neurotransmitter that motivates you to do things that make you feel good. 

Memory

According to Harvard Health, exercise boosts memory and thinking skills both directly and indirectly. It stimulates physiological changes such as reducing inflammation and balancing blood sugar while promoting the production of growth factors that affect the growth of new blood cells in the brain [7]. 

Brain fog

Exercise lowers chronic inflammation (it increases in the short term) which is related to disease. It beats brain fog and promotes clarity by increasing energy levels and improving blood flow to your brain. It also helps with sleep quality. I'm sure you've experienced that brain fog after a bad night of sleep? Fitness helps lift the fog, but don’t overexert yourself without rest days. It can lead to dehydration and higher cortisol (the stress hormone). 

Cognitive function 

A recent study on mice found that a hormone is released while exercising, that may improve overall brain health and decrease cognitive decline. The hormone heals damage and improves memory loss associated with dementia [7]. The result of cross-sectional and epidemiological study review showed that physical activity enhances cognitive function in all ages. Exercise helps enhance brain activity and improve memory [8]. 

How exercise reprograms the brain 

Recent studies and discoveries are focusing on the fundamental changes of the brain that exercise offers. Working out increases blood flow and the creation of new neural pathways. It surges brain volume and can reduce age-related damage to the brain’s white and gray matter. It also creates new brain cells. 

Physical exercise encourages neuroplasticity -- the ability of your brain to form and change connections, in response to learning or experiencing. Neuroplasticity can compensate for injury and disease and adjust to activities in response to new situations or changes in the environment. 

But what type of exercise and how much is needed to specifically target brain health?

What are the best exercises for brain health?

Research regarding which type of exercise is best for brain health is not conclusive but there are exciting advances in both animal and human studies. 

Certain types of exercise have shown to be more effective than others in strengthening and supporting the brain. In one study done on rats, scientists compared neurological differences in varied types of exercise: running, weight training, and high-intensity interval training. 

A large group of adult male rats were tested doing different workouts for seven weeks. Some were given running wheels, others did resistance training (climbing a wall with tiny weights attached to their tails - how cute), and others completed workouts similar to high-intensity interval training (sprinting on mini treadmills). The results were rat-ical (yeah I went there): 

  • Joggers: large increase of new neurons - the greater the distance they covered, the more new cells their brains contained 
  • HIIT trainers: somewhat higher amounts of neurons than the sedentary rats but fewer than the distance runners 
  • Weight lifters: although stronger, there were no discernible changes in neurogenesis 

The running wheels and treadmills were found to double or even triple the number of new neurons that are in the animals’ hippocampus -- a key area for memory and learning, when compared to sedentary animals [9]. Sustained aerobic exercise might be the most beneficial for brain health [910].

But why?...

It’s speculated that long term aerobic exercise like running or cycling, stimulates the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (B.D.N.F.) -- a substance that supports and promotes the growth of existing neurons in the brain. Weight training has been shown to have little effect on this chemical. It’s thought that high-intensity interval training is not ideal because its more physiologically draining and stressful. 

Just because this study showed improvement in the hippocampus with aerobic exercise, doesn’t mean that other activities such as weight training aren’t important. They may help in other ways that aren’t studied yet, such as creating new blood vessels or different connections in the brain. 

Aerobic exercise 

Aerobic exercise, also considered cardio training, is basically anything that elevates your heart rate above the resting level. Aerobic exercise includes walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, and running. The aim is to maintain a steady pace and intensity during your preferred workout. This differs from anaerobic exercise which takes you into the high-intensity zone (activities like sprints and high-intensity interval training). During aerobic exercise your body relies primarily on oxygen to produce energy while in anaerobic it doesn’t. 

A new study found that keeping a regular habit of getting aerobic activity can encourage the growth of new brain cells and this holds true even later in your life. After comparing memory brain scans and skill tests from over 876 older adults, researchers from the University of Miami found a greater mental decline for those who reported low-activity exercises (light yoga and walking) when compared with those with high-activity levels (running and cardio). The difference was equal to about 10 years of brain aging! [9]. 

Strength training 

Strength training, also called weight training or resistance training, is any exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an external resistance. This includes activities like lifting weights, working with resistance bands, or doing push-ups and squats. The expectation with weight training is to increase tone, strength and bulk (hypertrophy). 

Strength training may not have the drastic brain boosting results of aerobic exercise but bodyweight training is superior for building physical strength, balance, stamina, and mobility. It helps you tune into your body by being “forced” to focus on your muscles, knowing when to push and when to back off. 

Regular strength training also helps prevent the natural loss of lean muscle mass that comes with aging. It improves metabolism, since muscle burns more calories than fat tissue. It also helps protect your bones. In addition to getting enough vitamin D, it’s one of the main factors that keeps bones healthy and strong. 

Mindful movement

Cognitive improvements have also been seen in low-intensity, mind-body type movements. This includes yoga, tai chi, or mindful walking or strength training. These forms of exercise typically involve a combination of movement sequences with a conscious focus on the breath with the underlying intention to quiet the mind.  

These movements are perfect for fitness beginners and can help improve attention span while decreasing stress. One study was done on university students who practiced movement-focused practice and a breath-focused practice. Stress parameters (perceived stress and cortisol levels) as well as attention span was tested. While both groups showed a reduction in perceived stress and cortisol levels, only the breath-focused group showed improvement in attention span [10].

Brain power exercise program

When it comes to physical health the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend aiming for 30 minutes of daily activity, five days a week [11]. However, there are not definitive nor prescriptive exercise recommendations when it comes to brain health. This is in part because the science is relatively new but also because everyone has different life circumstances and biological make ups. One exercise program may be good for one person, but may lead to stress and injury in another. What matters the most is that you find something that gets you moving, and include a variety of exercises.

Focus on a mix of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mind-body exercise for a variety of brain health boosters. The key is diversity and finding what gets you moving. Being active can be anything that you do to get you going: walking, jogging, strength training, swimming, dancing, and group fitness classes to name a few. 

Nutrition for fitness 

Fitness and nutrition go hand in hand, especially when it comes to improving your physical and mental health. Meal and nutrient timing (eating certain nutrients such as carbs and protein, in certain amounts at a certain time) is not as important as overall calorie intake and quality of food. If you’re doing quick workouts -- on average less than 30 minutes, you don’t need to worry about pre and post-workout nutrition. Rather, focus on eating well and balanced throughout the day. 

If you’re doing long or very intense workouts, the right nutrition and timing can prevent muscle loss, shorten recovery time, and increase energy. 

  • Hydration: men aim for about three liters per day, and women about 2.2 (take into account your activity, level and external factors like hot weather)
  • Balance: 
    • Carbohydrate: complex carbs like whole grains, fish, tofu 
    • Protein: lean protein like chicken, fish or tofu
    • Fat: like avocado, nut butter, nuts, or seeds
  • Timing: 
    • If you can eat two to four hours before a workout try to eat a meal with all of the above macros
    • If you have less than one to two hours before you exercise, limit fat and aim for easily digestible carbs (banana, grapes, mango) and proteins (greek yogurt, milk) 

Want to learn about what foods are best for your brain health?: Science Says Eat These 17 Brain Foods for More Focus and Memory  

Brain training    

If you’re new to exercise or persuaded to try a different type of exercise to benefit your brain, give yourself some credit and kudos! Beginning something new can be nerve-racking. Finding the motivation all stems from, and ends with, your brain. Start small, and focus on the immediate benefits (those feel good chemicals and blood flow) and the brain benefits will follow suit. Ask yourself why your workout is important to you -- whether it be a mood booster, self-esteem increaser, weight loss kicker offer, or mental motivation. Just do it!  

 

 

  1. http://time.com/5553504/exercise-to-live-longer/
  2. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/6589/increase-energy-levels-and-cure-fatigue-through-exercise
  3. https://www.webmd.com/g00/diet/news/20061103/exercise-fights-fatigue-boosts-energy?i10c.ua=1&i10c.encReferrer=&i10c.dv=17
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27190483
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10487375
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241367/
  7. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5934999/
  9. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/which-type-of-exercise-is-best-for-the-brain/
  10. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810017305470
  11. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-kinds-of-exercise-are-good-for-brain-health-2018050213762

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