We all know that exercise is a pillar of physical health, but what you may not realize is that with every jog you take, every lap you swim, or every weight you lift, you’re supporting your brain health, as well. In this article, we’ll explore how exercise can have profound effects on your brain, as well as the best types of exercises for supporting a healthy brain.
Table of Contents:
- What is exercise?
- What happens inside the brain when you exercise?
- What benefits can you expect from exercise?
- What types of physical exercise are best for the brain?
- How long do I need to work out?
- What about cognitive brain exercises?
- The bottom line
What is exercise?
Exercise involves engaging in physical activity and increasing your heart rate beyond resting levels. Exercise can be broadly split into three categories: low intensity, moderate intensity, and high intensity.
This type of exercise might include a casual walk, a beginners’ yoga class, tai chi, biking on a flat surface, or using an elliptical at a leisurely pace.
This is what most people would think of as a good workout. Many of the low-intensity exercises listed above can easily become moderate-intensity exercises simply by upping your pace. For example, walking or biking uphill or taking a more advanced yoga class. Moderate-intensity exercise can also include things like weight training, jogging, or swimming laps.
This exercise entails giving an activity your full effort for a shorter amount of time. For example, running sprints, lifting heavy weights, or sprints in a pool. With high-intensity exercise, you typically can’t say more than a few words without having to pause to breathe.
What happens inside the brain when you exercise?
Aside from pumping more oxygen to the brain, exercise triggers the following beneficial processes in the brain:
Promotes brain plasticity
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt to change by altering its functional and structural properties. This is what gives us the ability to learn new things and acquire new skills. Exercise has been shown to enhance neuroplasticity, enabling the brain to reorganize and grow new neuronal connections.
Exercise has been shown to induce the release of hormones that can enhance the growth of brain cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s vital for memory and learning. Exercise has also been shown to cause the hippocampus itself to grow in size. This is very important when it comes to lowering the risk of age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Regulates mood-boosting chemicals
Exercise promotes the release of chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which make you feel happy and calm. Not only does exercise trigger these feel-good chemicals, but it also helps your brain rid itself of chemicals that make you feel stressed and anxious, including cortisol and epinephrine. This is backed up by countless studies that show that people who exercise tend to be happier and less stressed than those who abstain.
What benefits can you expect from exercise?
Everyone benefits from exercise, regardless of age, sex, or physical ability. Here are some of the incredible benefits you can expect from getting your sweat on.
You’ll feel better:
Because exercise benefits so many systems in your body, you’re bound to feel better in a number of ways. With regular exercise, you’ll likely feel more energetic, strong, relaxed, accomplished, and happy.
You’ll look better:
When you engage in physical activity, you burn calories and build muscle, leading to a slimmer, more toned body.
You’ll improve your ability to learn:
Exercise improves learning in three ways. First, it improves alertness, attention, and motivation. Second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for learning. Third, it stimulates the development of new nerve cells, increasing the size of the hippocampus.
You’ll sharpen your memory:
Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory have greater volume in people who exercise versus those who don’t.
You’ll improve your vision:
Cardiovascular exercise lowers the pressure in your eyes, which helps keep the retinal ganglion cells protected. Cardio exercise also increases blood flow to the optic nerve and the retina. Because of these effects, overall eye health and vision can be improved, and the risk of serious eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy, can be reduced.
Improve blood flow to the brain:
Many studies have linked the cognitive improvements following exercise to the increased capacity of the heart, lungs, and blood to transport oxygen. Exercise increases your heart rate, which promotes the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain. This helps support overall brain health.
You’ll reduce inflammation:
Studies show that as little as 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise, including fast walking, could have anti-inflammatory effects.
You’ll lower your risk of neurodegenerative diseases:
Research suggests that aerobic exercise may reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and reduce age-related progressive loss of brain volume.
What types of physical exercise are best for the brain?
While the best type of exercise may vary from person to person, these are the top types of exercise to consider.
Many studies have pointed to aerobic exercise as being one of the best things you can do for your brain. Also known as “cardio,” aerobic exercise, by definition, means “with oxygen.” When performing this type of exercise, your breathing and heart rate will increase, which pumps more oxygen to the brain, leading to a host of benefits.
Research shows that aerobic exercise can increase brain plasticity, repair damaged brain cells, stimulate the growth of new brain cells, trigger the release of feel-good chemicals, and reduce the production of stress-inducing chemicals. These beneficial processes translate to improved memory, learning, mood, brain health, and decreased stress levels.
Examples of good aerobic exercises include running, briskly walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, dancing, and taking aerobic classes. Anything that gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping will do the trick!
One specific type of aerobic exercise that may particularly benefit brain health is high-intensity interval training, commonly referred to as HIIT. This type of exercise involves short bursts of maximum energy expenditure followed by low-intensity rest periods. One recent study showed that HIIT resulted in the most significant benefits for neuroplasticity when compared to high- or low-intensity continuous training in healthy young adults.
Studies have shown that yoga increases gray matter volume in the hippocampus and frontal sections of your brain. So how does this benefit you? Brain scans have found that a person’s general intelligence is associated with the volume of gray matter in that specific area of the brain. This means that consistently practicing yoga can improve your memory and ability to learn. It’s also excellent for releasing feel-good chemicals that improve mood and reduce stress levels.
A great low-intensity option is tai chi. Not only can this practice reduce stress and enhance sleep quality, but studies show that long-term tai chi practice can induce structural changes in the brain, resulting in an increase in brain volume. Participating in a tai chi class is a great way to learn the different movements. Then, you can practice tai chi whenever and wherever you’d like to reap its brain benefits.
Another brain-boosting form of exercise is weight training. In one study, researchers found that six months of strength training (lifting weights) improved cognitive performance and helped protect specific sub regions of the hippocampus that are particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. Even more impressive? These benefits lasted for a year, even after the weight training was discontinued.
How long do I need to work out?
Now that you understand the incredible brain health benefits of exercise, you’re probably wondering how much you need to work out to reap these rewards. The answer to that question depends on a few factors: your current level of fitness, your age, and the type of exercise.
As a baseline, healthcare professionals recommend 150 minutes (or 2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity activity a week. Some examples of moderate-intensity exercise include briskly walking, jogging, biking, weight lifting, swimming, or taking an exercise class. Depending on your age and level of fitness, you might have to start off slower and with less intensity. Listen to your body, check in with your doctor, and increase your exercise time and intensity as your ability increases.
What’s most important is to get your body moving and maintaining consistency over the long term.
What about cognitive brain exercises?
While physical exercise is undoubtedly beneficial for your brain, you mustn’t forget to give your brain a workout as well! Keeping your brain active and engaged through regular mental exercises can boost your memory, concentration, focus, and daily function. This becomes especially important as you age. Here are some evidence-based activities for your brain that will keep you mentally sharp.
Do a jigsaw puzzle:
Research has shown that doing a puzzle uses many parts of the brain and is a protective factor for visuospatial cognitive aging.
Play a game of cards:
One study showed that playing cards can lead to greater brain volume in several brain regions and improve memory and thinking skills.
Learn new dance moves:
The CDC states that learning new dance moves can increase your brain’s processing speed and memory. To reap these benefits, take a dance class or gather your friends and go line dancing.
Learn a new skill:
Research shows that learning a new skill can help improve memory function in older adults. Now’s a great time to learn how to repair your car, use a new software program, play the guitar, or speak a new language.
Teach someone else a skill:
One of the best ways to exercise your brain is to teach a skill to another person. Do you have a friend who wants to learn how to golf or speak Spanish? Teaching them will benefit both of you!
No list of brain exercises would be complete without meditation. In addition to reducing stress and anxiety, meditation has been shown to improve memory and increase your brain’s ability to process information. Find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and spend at least ten minutes a day meditating.
The bottom line
Whether it’s a brisk morning walk, a heart-pumping hike, or a lively dance class, exercising can have profound effects on your brain. The key is to commit to making exercise a habit, just like brushing your teeth or taking vitamins. Work to create a balanced exercise routine that includes aerobic exercise, strength training, and balance exercises such as yoga and tai chi. By incorporating various types of exercise into your routine, you’ll be getting a wide range of brain-boosting benefits that will support the health of your brain and body in countless ways.