Get Your Body Moving, For Your Brain's Sake
You know (or at least, you hope) that hitting the gym on a regular basis can help deliver the physical appearance you want. After all, exercising is associated with improved muscle strength and tone, weight loss and maintenance, and better all-around physicality. Additionally, it's no secret regular exercise is associated with better heart health and lower risks of diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and some cancers, too.
However, what should be shouted from the rooftops is how incredible exercising can be for brain health. Engaging in exercise on a regular basis can improve mental health, reduce age-related declines in cognition and stave off symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. If you've been waiting around for a magic pill to boost your brain function, it may be time to free your sneakers from their hidey-hole and put them to good use.
How it works
One way that exercise and brain function are linked is also the reason exercise is good for your cardiovascular system: It causes your heart to pump harder and your lungs to intake more oxygen. This increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to your brain can help "wake you up" and stimulate the release of health-supporting hormones and chemicals in your brain.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"Exercise can improve brain health in myriad ways," said Ryan Glatt, a fellow of Applied Functional Science and a personal trainer. Glatt is also a brain health coach for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
"It can improve brain health at the micro-level by improving neurotransmitter health, facilitating new connections between brain cells and increasing the number of blood vessels," he added. "At a macro-level, exercise can improve brain blood flow, improve the efficiency of brain activity, and increase or maintain the volume of the brain and certain subregions on the brain, such as the hippocampus, or the memory centers of the brain."
This increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to your brain can help 'wake you up' and stimulate the release of health-supporting hormones and chemicals in your brain.
Of course, the how gets more technical. There are many different processes that take place during (and following) exercise that play a role in improving memory and cognition.
"You don't need to be a neurologist to understand the hows and whys of exercise's effects on your brain," said Vernon Williams, M.D., a sports neurologist and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California. "A simple understanding of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is helpful. BDNF is a substance found in the brain that helps keep your brain cells healthy while encouraging new brain cell growth and facilitating communication between cells. Some have likened BDNF to fertilizer for the brain. High levels of BDNF in the brain aid in neuroplasticity, helping our brains grow, change and adapt more nimbly in response to the world around us."
So if BDNF is so great for the brain, knowing how to increase its levels is important, right?
"BDNF is created when the brain is stimulated," Williams explained. "Many historical studies focused on brain stimulation with 'brain game' activities, like word problems and crossword puzzles. While these activities are suitable, newer and compelling research suggests that physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can be the ultimate BDNF brain-booster."
Whose brains are helped by exercise
What may be particularly encouraging about the research on the effects of exercise on the brain is that you don't have to be a chronic, lifelong exerciser to enjoy benefits. Williams pointed to a 2019 study performed by Columbia researchers that specifically looked at the age and fitness levels of exercise participants and how their brains responded to a newly implemented exercise program.
"Researchers found that the older the person was who participated in aerobic exercise, the more pronounced the positive effect was on their cognitive function and cortical thickness," Williams said. "Another fascinating aspect of the study was the fact that the researchers didn't select people who were considered 'regular exercisers.' Rather, they wanted to test their hypotheses on people considered to have a 'below average' level of cardiovascular fitness."
This research indicates that even older, less fit individuals—and those already experiencing age-related cognitive declines—can experience positive changes to their overall brain health. Of course, it's not only older individuals or unfit individuals who enjoy exercise's effects. They may experience the most pronounced effects over the short-term, but long-term exercisers can build and boost the benefits throughout their lives.
"Long-term exercisers have been shown to have better-preserved brain volumes and cerebrovascular health, but short-term exercisers can still experience benefits in mood, cognition and brain volume," Glatt said. "More research is needed to compare short- and long-term exercisers in terms of certain brain health outcomes and whether or not there are diminishing returns."
The best exercise is the one you'll do
When it comes to the type of exercise you should engage in, any form of exercise you enjoy is likely to be the best choice because you're more likely to follow through and form a habit. Thus, if you like strength training, certainly, following a consistent program is going to be helpful. If you like to play racquetball, don't shy away from setting up a weekly game.
"Dance, yoga, tai chi, strength training and even exergaming (active video games) can elicit positive cognitive and physical benefits in persons with dementia," Glatt said. In fact, for individuals experiencing dementia—specifically, mild cognitive impairment—Glatt noted that research indicates starting a resistance training program can offer significant cognitive benefits.
Activities like dance, martial arts, sports or even ping-pong still require a "neuromotor exercise" that includes skill, coordination and often social stimulation. These exercises, which can include "mind-body" activities such as yoga and tai chi, help stimulate new synaptic connections while boosting mood.
"These types of exercise can be enjoyable, social, engaging and recalled from earlier days, leading to improvements in mood and cognition through a variety of different mechanisms," Glatt said. "Finding activities that individuals enjoy is certainly key. Being willing to try new types of exercise, and never settling for one type exclusively, is something that can bring both exploration and benefit."
You do need aerobic exercise
If you're starting an exercise program for the sole purpose of protecting and supporting your brain health, you need to make sure to include cardiovascular exercise.
"A regular aerobic exercise routine is shown to aid the prevention or reduction in the degree of age-related deterioration in gray and white matter cellular function," Williams said. "Cardiovascular and aerobic activity—particularly high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—appears to be more effective than resistance or weight training for promoting an increase in circulating BDNF."
The type of cardio you choose is up to you: walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, circuit training, jumping rope, cross-country skiing and so on. So long as it increases your heart rate to at least a moderate level of intensity, it's going to support your brain function. That said, Williams, as mentioned, is a particular fan of HIIT when it comes to brain health.
So long as it increases your heart rate to at least a moderate level of intensity, it's going to support your brain function.
"Some preliminary comparisons between moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) and high-intensity interval training suggest increased BDNF in circulation after HIIT compared to MICT," he said. "Other immediate benefits to HIIT workouts include improved mood and cognitive function that can last for several hours after the exercise has ended."
He also added that high-intensity interval training can prompt famous "feel-good" chemicals, such as endorphins and endocannabinoids.
Whether you do MICT and take a 30-minute steady-paced walk, or HIIT and work on a combination of walking and running, alternating between the two exercises every minute for 20 minutes, that's really up to you. Both options offer significant brain-health benefits.
If you're a beginner or a person without a history of working out, it's imperative to work your way up to higher intensity workouts or you'll risk injury. When considering a new workout plan, it's always best to discuss it with a doctor or personal trainer and to ramp up the intensity slowly.
Putting together a weekly plan
When it comes to putting together an exercise plan to support brain health, Glatt said it's not too much different from typical exercise guidelines. You should aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, with additional strength training and neuromotor exercise as well.
"Research has shown that multimodal exercise programs may be more effective at preventing dementia when compared to shorter, single-modality programs," Glatt said. "A general plan of two to three times per week of each exercise should be a broad goal—six days per week of exercise: two should be aerobic, two resistance and two neuromotor."
What's important here is you find a program you like and stick with it.
"In a society where exercise is most frequently seen as essential to our external physique and body image, research on the connection between brain health and exercise helps highlight the truth: Exercise is even more important for the processes happening on the inside of the body," Williams said.
Don't take the research lightly. Start carving out time to boost your brain health and combat cognitive decline. It may help make your golden years more enjoyable for you and your family.