Better Brain Health
Fitness fixes to help nourish our most important asset
Production Amy Abrahams
Photography Aiony Haust
Fitness keeps you strong, but did you know it also helps boost your brain? While it’s easy to focus on the physical benefits of exercise and how it affects your appearance, working out might be the most important thing you can do for brain health. “Just as we might have a personal trainer for our body, we should also have one for our brain,” says Dr. Jamie Wilson, a dementia specialist and founder of HomeTouch. “The good news is that the two can work together for mutual benefit. Exercise boosts the blood flow to the brain, delivering vital oxygen and growth hormone stimulation, which helps provide a positive environment for the growth of brain cells.”
When it comes to which exercise is better for your brain and how long you should work out, the evidence is mixed - however, “both cardio and strength training can boost brain health,” says Dr. Wilson. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise, which gets your heart pumping and body sweating, appears to boost the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Meanwhile, Dr. Wilson adds that muscle strengthening is also recommended as, “weak hand grip is associated with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.” This is because hand grip is an easy measure for muscle strength, revealing that general vitality is likely to increase blood flow to the brain, oxygenation and release of endorphins.
Still not convinced? Here are four more ways to work out your brain...
1. Schedule in a leg day
If you find yourself regularly swerving those squats sessions, it might be time to reconsider after new research this year found that leg exercise is crucial for the health of your brain and nervous system. A study published in Frontiers In Neuroscience found using the legs, particularly in weight-bearing exercise, sends signals to the brain to produce healthy cells for the brain and nervous system. “It is no accident that we are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit, and use our leg muscles to lift things,” said Dr. Raffaella Adami from the University of Milan, who led the research.
2. Dance your way to better balance
Proving that you don’t have to hit the gym to get a good workout, research has found that throwing some shapes on the dance floor can have a profound anti-ageing effect on the brain too. "Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases. “Dancing and endurance training both increase the area of the brain that declines with age, but it was only dancing that led to noticeable behavioural changes in terms of improved balance.” Researchers believe dancing’s potent effect is likely to be because it involved the extra challenge of learning routines.
3. Hit the yoga mat for sharper smarts
As if you needed more reason to factor in your Downward Dog, research has found that mind-body exercises such as yoga can cause positive changes in brain function as well as enhancing your mental wellbeing and reducing stress, anxiety and inflammation associated with chronic stress. A study in Frontiers In Human Neuroscience found that after participants completed a three-month yoga and meditation retreat, they had improved brain health, especially in areas related to awareness, attention, executive functions and memory, as well as increased anti-inflammatory biomarkers. Time to stretch out and say ‘Om…’.
4. Short on time? Aim for 10!
If you’re looking for a quick fix to power up your brain, a 10-minute burst of exercise might be just what you need, say researchers at Western University in Canada. While other studies have showed brain benefits after 20 minutes of exercise, as well as from longer-term commitment, research suggests even 10 minutes of aerobic activity can help us problem-solve and focus - even if it only lasts temporarily. In the study, participants either sat and read a magazine or did 10 minutes of exercise on a stationary bike – those who had exercised showed immediate improvement in brain function, with increased reaction times and greater accuracy.