For many people, the goal of exercising is often related to changing our physical appearance or improving our physical health. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard from people that they are trying to “tone up” or shave a few inches from their midsection, lower their blood pressure, or reduce medication. While these goals are all motivational and great reasons to start exercising, rarely do I hear people saying they are exercising to improve their brain health.
There are many “brain games” that promote increased cognitive function and mental acuity. However, the best way to sharpen your mental skills is to engage in aerobic activity. “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning,” says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.”
Here are a few examples of how exercise can have a positive affect on cognitive function:
Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help generate new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells—aiding in the learning process. For those looking for an even bigger brain boost, complicated activities like playing tennis or taking a dance class provide even more mental stimulation. “You're challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination,” explains Ratey. “Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to grow.”
“Runner’s High” really does exist, especially if you're willing to shift into high-intensity mode. Jumping on the treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes can reduce tension and stress by increasing levels of soothing brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training. Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. “You'll feel really sparkly for the rest of the day,” he says.
Decreases Risk of Cognitive Decline and Disease
The Alzheimer's Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against the disease. Exercise appears to protect the hippocampus, which governs memory and spatial navigation, and is one of the first brain regions to succumb to Alzheimer's-related damage. Even mild activity like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active—fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong.
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