Most people would agree that exercise is a good thing. The issue becomes confusing when questions come up. What kind of exercise routine is the best? How long, how intense and how frequent should it be? If it lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s, does it help those who are just mildly forgetful? While exercise may focus on toning and slimming the body, the benefits exercise has on the brain are astounding. We asked researchers who focus on the science of exercise to elaborate on how exercise helps the brain, and here’s what they had to say.
An authority in athletic edge chiropractic, Matt Tanneberg, from Phoenix, Arizona, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and an expert in functional movement systems (FMS). According to Tanneberg, the best exercise for the brain is “cardiovascular endurance running” because it is good for the heart and “it pumps more oxygen to your brain.” He cites a study that shows endurance running grows cells in the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for both memory and spatial orientation. Just be mindful, however, as your body needs to adjust to whatever exercise you do—even if you were running prior to starting your weight loss program.
Tanneberg also notes that whatever is good for your heart is good for your brain, too! Not only will exercise improve the oxygen flow to your brain (and heart as well), but the gray matter of your brain will grow, which leads to improvement in coordination as well. But again, you don’t want to stress your heart out and have it overwork itself. If you do want to work toward endurance running, stick to a very moderate pace to ensure that you don’t put stress on your body—your mind will thank you for it.
Integration and Moderation
Naresh C. Rao, DO, FAOAM, an osteopathic physician, author, lecturer, expert in sports medicine and the official physician of the 2016 USA Water Polo Olympic Team, has recently published the book Step Up Your Game: The Revolutionary Program Elite Athletes Use to Increase Performance and Achieve Total Health. The book exhorts non-professional athletes to participate in sustained aerobic exercises, such as swimming, biking and long distance running. Rao also proposes an integrated system that includes nutrition, injury prevention, mental and even spiritual practice.
Judy and Shari Zucker are twin sisters and popular lecturers and experts in ergonomics, the science that combines human physiology, physical education and nutrition. When they were asked whether or not exercise benefits for the brain, they responded with a definite “yes.”
“Exercise is critical in preventing dementia, and can reduce one’s chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease by 50%! Exercise also increases the level of neurotrophins, substances in the body that nourish brain cells and help protect them against damage from stroke and other injuries.”
Knowing that Alzheimer’s (AD) is linked to reduced size in certain brain regions, Katherine Reiter and her colleagues tested the effect of exercise on sedentary elderly with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The study involved “moderate intensity walking” for 12 weeks and revealed an average volume increase of 8.49 % in the parts of the brain responsible for language comprehension, awareness and and memory.
At the University of Kentucky, College of Health Science, researchers focus on the effects of regular exercise in the human elderly as well. According to Nathan F. Johnson, PT, DPT, PhD, the physically fit elderly have “better and stronger connections between some brain regions.” Johnson and his colleagues found that aerobic exercise and heart function improvement had a beneficial effect on the blood flow to the sections of the brain found to be disrupted by AD.
Sprint Interval Training
Christopher Bergland, an exercise science writer who authored two books on exercise benefits for the brain, comments: “You don’t have to become an exercise fanatic to reap the brain benefits of moving your body. Moderate intensity aerobic activity—such as walking for 30 minutes most days of the week—can help protect your brain from shrinking and keep you sharp.”
However, Bergland points out that if you are crunched for time, you can benefit from sprint interval training, short burst of intensive muscle work followed by rest. According to recent studies, short interval training yields high value for cardiovascular and brain health.
Dr. Barry Sears, author of The Zone, a comprehensive book on nutrition, believes in the advantages of sprint interval training, noting that while interval training may be harder, “You have a far greater benefit in lowering insulin resistance and thus greater fat loss.” Dr. Sears also notes that in his research of combination exercise training that there was improvement in cognitive functions such as episodic memory and processing speed, but believes that more research is required to figure out what the best exercise for one’s body and mind is to yield maximum benefits.
Yoga combines minimum levels of exercise with mind focus. Luke Thornton, a fitness expert for a supplement supplier in the UK, proposes that yoga is the best exercise for the brain. Studies held by the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign show that focusing the attention inward, or just discarding your thoughts temporarily, improves your executive function and other markers of good health. Poses such as the Prayer Pose, the Stand Pose, the Eagle Pose and the Crane Pose are suggested to calm and control the mind.
Excess Exercise, Strenuous Exercise and Low Calorie Diets
While the general consensus of exercise helping the brain is affirmative, the main takeaway should be that, like with any exercise program, you should assess it and see how it works for you. If you are just beginning a fitness regimen, you should build up endurance and not focus on how intense or for how long your exercise sessions are. You do not want to put more strain on your body, including your heart. Plus, if you begin a weight loss program, you should consider how your body adjusts to its new caloric intake. We recommend that if you have just started your weight loss journey with Medifast California that you either ease into your workout cycle or, if you are already working out, to cut the intensity and length of your workouts in half to allow your body—and mind—to adjust to your new lifestyle.
So the next time you feel a mental block, take a walk outside! The burst of fresh air and energy will benefit your brain—especially if you make it a habit to do so on a daily basis.