In a world where an increasing majority of us are struggling with overweight and obesity, it’s no wonder that the fitness industry is booming. We hit the gym in droves, throw out our junk food, learn how to cook, and do everything we can to lose excess body fat, maximize our strength, and improve our physical function overall.
But if you ask your fellow gym buddies why they workout, chances are most of them won’t say that they’re trying to improve their brain health. Fortunately, whether we realize it or not, exercise is an effective way to build a better brain — and it’s not just effective for you, but for your children and aging parents, too.
5 Ways That Exercise Affects Your Brain Health
You can thank your gym membership for a lot more than just a better body. Here are five ways exercise improves your cognitive function:
- Increased memory — Got a big test coming up? Always bad with names and dates? Boost your ability to store and recall information by exercising at least two to three days per week.
- Improved focus — Exercise can improve your attention and help you focus more on difficult tasks whether at work, in school, or at home.
- Improved mood — Ever heard of runner’s high? The increase in endorphins and other hormones caused by exercise can have a near instantaneous effect on a person’s mood. And no, you don’t have to run to enjoy the feel-good benefits. Even something as simple as a ten-minute brisk walk can elicit mood-enhancing effects.
- Improved decision-making — One part of your brain that is positively affected by exercise is the frontal lobe, which governs “executive functions.” This includes things like problem-solving, decision-making, information recall, and self-control.
- Decreased stress — The normal ups and downs of life can make anyone feel stressed out or anxious at times. Exercise is considered a valid and valuable tool to help people cope with their stress more effectively.
So, Exercise Boosts Your Brain — But How?
The above-mentioned benefits, among others, have been consistently supported by research from exercise scientists, doctors, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals. But how, exactly, do these changes occur?
It turns out that there are few key explanations. For instance, researchers have found that aerobic exercise helps to “up-regulate” (turn on) a gene that controls the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short. BDNF helps your nervous system grow (neurogenesis), adapt (neuroplasticity), and protect itself from environmental stressors (neuroprotection).
In other words, not only do your muscles adapt and grow stronger in response to physical exercise, but so, too, does your brain.
Beyond influencing gene expression, exercise is also believed to positively affect the brain by:
- Increasing local blood flow, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients made available to brain tissue
- Increasing the activation of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory
- Stimulating the production of various hormones and neurotransmitters that influence everything from stress relief to mood
Why Everyone Needs Daily Exercise
Perhaps the best news is that it’s not just healthy adults who can expect to experience a cognitive boost after a bout of exercise. Studies have shown that all of the following populations can expect cognitive enhancement thanks to regular physical activity:
- Children, including those with ADHD and other learning disabilities
- Adults who have had strokes
- Adults with PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses
- Adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Research has even shown that children who do their homework right after a bout of exercise (or, conversely, exercise right before a big test) tend to retain and recall more information compared to their non-exercising peers.
Plus, people who exercise regularly throughout their their lives may even be able to stave off many age-related diseases that can negatively affect the brain including dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disease.
3 Workouts You Can Try to Build a Better Brain
Research shows that both aerobic exercise and resistance training can elicit positive changes within your brain and nervous system. To hedge your bets, why not do it all? Make time in your week to try the following workouts:
1. A 20-to 30-minute Brisk Walk or Hike
Put your sneakers on, grab your dog or a close friend, and hit the great outdoors. The added benefit of being outside can accelerate the brain-boosting benefits of your trip. Plan on coming home feeling refreshed, refocused, and energized.
Feeling strong? Go for a jog instead. Alternatively, if you’re trying to avoid high-impact movements, hop on an upright bike or jump in a lap pool. Any type of cardio that gets your heart rate up can be beneficial.
2. A 20-Minute Bodyweight Strengthening Circuit
Perform 5 rounds of the following movements:
- 5-10 push-ups
- 5-10 ring rows or pull-ups
- 10-15 lunges (each leg)
- 10-15 bodyweight squats
- 15-25 sit-ups
Aim to do every set unbroken, but rest as needed between sets. Ask a personal trainer or trusted gym friend for tips on advancing the movements or even simply to check your form and ensure you’re doing the movements correctly.
3. A Group Class
Whether you love yoga, Zumba, spinning, kickboxing, Pilates, or something else, the exercise plus the social interaction can be a great mood-enhancer.
Feeling particularly adventurous? Sign up for a class that you’ve never done before. The novel experience will add an extra boost of cognitive enhancement (thanks to that previously-mentioned phenomenon known as neuroplasticity, or the ability of your brain to change and adapt).
Exercise for Body and Brain Health
Go ahead, become the total package by improving your body and brains. Ultimately, any physical exercise is better than none, so find your favorite way to get moving and aim to make exercise a part of your normal life. Make it a family affair by encouraging your kids to come along with you on your walks or hikes, use it as a time to meet up and catch up with friends, or make it your own safe space.
Just remember — the more often you exercise now, the better off your body and your brain will be in the future.