Exercise is a great way to keep our bodies healthy. This is something just about everyone will agree with, but did you know it’s also important for keeping our brains healthy? Studies in mice have found that voluntary exercise increases new growth of neural cells in the brain. What’s even more interesting is that exercise can reverse age-related decline in neural cell formation, even when exercise is started later in life. Mice that voluntarily exercised, both old and young, learned quicker, remember better, and had increased neural cell formation. (1,2)
While this is all very exciting, we’re only talking about mice here. What about humans? Does exercise help our brains as well? Indeed it does! One group of scientists found a 32% reduction in dementia risk in individuals who exercised 3 days per week or more for 15 minutes each day compared to those who exercised less than 3 days per week. (3) Cognitive function – specifically memory, scheduling, planning, selective attention, and response inhibition – has been associated with physical exercise in multiple studies over the past few decades. (4) While most studies are performed in older adults, children also benefit and have been seen to make substantial academic improvements when involved in weekly physical activity. (5)
So is that the magic solution? Will exercise alone keep your brain healthy and strong? A recent scientific review informs us that while physical exercise will increase the number of new neurons being formed, these neurons will not necessarily live. In order to keep the neurons alive, we also need to work out our brains. There are many ways to exercise our brains, and the review didn’t specify what type of mental training works best. What was emphasized was that the harder the task and the longer it takes to successfully learn it, the more neural cells are retained. (6)
Here’s the great part – your daily workout can be used to strengthen your body and your mind in one go! As was mentioned above, the most important part about training your brain is to challenge yourself. I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of workouts that I’ve done that have challenged me beyond physically! Many exercises require a good amount of coordination to accomplish. Participating in sports requires strategy and mental awareness. Exercise classes require quick recognition and performance of skills. There are many ways you can challenge your brain while staying physically fit.
The biggest rule you should follow is to change up your routine regularly. If you mindlessly perform the same workout every day, your brain will not be challenged. I’m not saying you can’t have a good mind-wandering run or two throughout the week, but don’t let that be the only thing you do. Try changing your running route and memorize the directions, or change up your pace throughout your run by focusing on your step rate.
Other ways to challenge your brain include mastering a new Yoga pose, learning a new weightlifting technique, changing the order of your exercises and number of reps in your plyometric routine, focusing on your breathing, increasing the difficulty of an exercise, and much more. Take advantage of the opportunity and be creative with your exercise!
Make physical and mental training part of your daily routine. By changing up your workouts and challenging yourself, you’ll not only improve your physical fitness but increase your mental function as well. You’re not only helping yourself now, but preserving your brain health for years to come.
Interested in learning how to change up your routine? Schedule a FREE session with a HomeFit personal trainer or yoga instructor to learn how!
1. Van Praag, H., Shubert, T., Zhao, C., & Gage, F. H. (2005). Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. The Journal of neuroscience, 25(38), 8680-8685.
2. Siette, J., Westbrook, R. F., Cotman, C., Sidhu, K., Zhu, W., Sachdev, P., & Valenzuela, M. J. (2013). Age-specific effects of voluntary exercise on memory and the older brain. Biological psychiatry, 73(5), 435-442.
3. Larson, E. B., Wang, L., Bowen, J. D., McCormick, W. C., Teri, L., Crane, P., & Kukull, W. (2006). Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. Annals of internal medicine, 144(2), 73-81.
4. Colcombe, S., & Kramer, A. F. (2003). Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults a meta-analytic study. Psychological science, 14(2), 125-130.
5. Donnelly, J. E., Greene, J. L., Gibson, C. A., Smith, B. K., Washburn, R. A., Sullivan, D. K., ... & Jacobsen, D. J. (2009). Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC): a randomized controlled trial to promote physical activity and diminish overweight and obesity in elementary school children.Preventive medicine, 49(4), 336-341.
6. Curlik, D. M., & Shors, T. J. (2013). Training your brain: do mental and physical (MAP) training enhance cognition through the process of neurogenesis in the hippocampus?. Neuropharmacology, 64, 506-514.