Exercise and Brain Health: Tips to get the most from your workout
The science is pretty clear: exercising and maintaining good health are some of the best things you can do to keep the body at peak performance. But there are more than a few options out there when it comes to exercising. Exercise and brain health are closely linked. Are some forms of exercising better than others when it comes to the brain? Are there right–or wrong–ways to exercise when it comes to maximizing brain power? And how does exercise affect the aging brain?
Aviv Clinics clients receiving the innovative hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatment optimize their brain health because their personalized treatment plan combines cognitive and physical training, plus receive nutritional coaching. As part of the program, clients exercise on the cutting-edge h/p/cosmos medical treadmill at the clinic. The combination of physical and cognitive effort maximizes the benefits of the treatment protocol.
How cognitive abilities change with age
While most Americans fear losing their memory and cognitive abilities, far fewer actually do. As we get older, a slight level of cognitive decline is inevitable due to the normal aging process. It’s common to have issues with memory and slower thinking. But older adults are also increasingly at risk for mild cognitive impairment and dementia, the latter of which includes conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
While some of the risk factors for these conditions are out of your control, such as age, genetics, and family history, your overall health plays a role, too. Staying healthy and active can protect the brain.
Our brains haven’t changed much in the last 50,000 years or so, but our lifestyle certainly has. In the days of our nomadic, hunter-gatherer ancestors, life was a little more physically demanding–our bodies are designed to move and be active. Sitting, it seems, could be making us sick.
According to LifeSpanFitness, these days the average American sits for 11 hours a day, and an estimated 20% of all deaths over age 35 can be attributed to a sedentary lifestyle. Lack of exercise, poor diet, and use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs are often a starting point. Falling into this sedentary lifestyle can quickly lead to a downward spiral.
The spiral of decline
If there are underlying conditions or you have risk factors for certain conditions, a sedentary lifestyle can exacerbate them or lead to chronic disease. Dealing with chronic illnesses is difficult even with access to good healthcare, but many do not or cannot get proper care, further exacerbating present conditions. Helplessness and hopelessness about the situation can then lead to anxiety and/or depression. You may feel like you can’t live the life you used to, and may find yourself self-isolating. Unfortunately, declining physical and mental health can set you up to be even less active, and the cycle continues.
Your brain isn’t the only organ affected by this vicious cycle; this kind of lifestyle can lead to problems with cardiovascular health as well. In fact, they seem to be intricately linked; in general, things that improve heart health improve brain health, too.
How are exercise and brain health linked?
Anytime that you exercise, you’re pumping more blood to your brain tissues, and with that comes a lot of oxygen and other nutrients, vital for the brain’s functioning. In response, the brain also cranks out some helpful molecules. Here are just a few benefits of exercise for the brain:
- Neurotransmitters (NTs) like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are released, improving mood,
motivation, focus, attention, and learning
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps your brain repair and rebuild, creating new neurons and
- Hormones work with BDNF and can boost your mood and mental clarity
- Endorphins and other molecules are released, helping relieve pain
- Increased blood flow delivers nutrients and carries away waste products
- The hippocampus increases in volume
Two areas of the brain are particularly important when it comes to cognitive decline. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the hippocampus. These areas are the most susceptible to cognitive degeneration or impairment.
The hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, is affected by exercise in a few ways. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can actually increase the volume of brain matter in the hippocampus, an area that will often decline in volume as we age and significantly with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also where a lot of neurogenesis (creating new brain cells) is going on–at least if you’re exercising enough!
The other area that benefits directly from exercise is the prefrontal cortex–this is the CEO of the brain, responsible for most of our executive functions including decision making, attention, problem-solving, and goal setting. Studies have shown that older adults in particular can benefit from exercise due to increased executive functioning.
What’s the best kind of exercise?
Getting oxygen-rich blood pumping to the brain seems to be the best way to reap the benefits of exercise. Therefore, aerobic exercise (or cardio) is a good place to start. While all types of exercise have benefits, most of the studies favor those that elevate your heart rate and keep it there for a time.
The “prescription” for most older adults is to aim to exercise at a moderate-intensity for 30-45 minutes, 3-4 times per week. An easy way to keep track of your progress is with a fitness tracker. Find out if they are right for you.
Moderate intensity can be measured by keeping your heart going at the optimal rate, in this case, 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. To find out your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For example, a 70-year-old’s maximum heart rate would be 150. That means that to exercise at the right intensity, she should maintain a heart rate between 105-120.
You should warm up and cool down for aerobic exercise, but don’t count that as part of your total. The 30-45 minutes (as prescribed) should all be while your heart rate is at the target rate.
Tips for getting started
If you’re like many (if not most) adults, you might be starting more towards the sedentary end of the activity scale. The exercise prescription above is an ideal goal, and it’s used primarily because that’s what they did in the studies that showed the best outcomes for cognitive health. However, other studies showed that lower-intensity activities like walking (5 miles a week) and yoga could be beneficial, too.
Even if you’re aiming for that peak exercise intensity, there are lots of ways to make exercising for brain health more fun, easier, and less stressful.
Find movement that you love
Exercise is about movement, so find a way to move your body that you enjoy. If that’s running laps, great. If you love to dance, then dance! And there’s always sports and leisure–gardening, golfing, bowling, are all ways to move. Even window shopping or hula hooping can count as exercise. Need more ideas? Try any of these non-boring exercises!
Finding movement you enjoy can also help change your perspective and shift away from goals like weight loss that may feel like a chore. Focus on the way exercise makes you feel and the enjoyment you get from moving.
Start from where you are
If you’re already pretty active, or you’ve exercised a lot in the past, it’ll probably be easier for you to start. If you are not as active as you could be, that’s okay! It’s never too late to begin a new exercise practice.
If you really want to get the benefits of brain-boosting exercise, be aware of where you’re starting from and build from there. If you’re sedentary, jumping into an intense workout routine could be difficult physically and frustrating mentally. You’re more likely to stick with it if you’re realistic about your goals and abilities.
Focus on frequency
If you’ve struggled in the past to start an exercise practice, you’re not alone. Exercising consistently means forming a new habit, and that’s no easy feat. Starting any habit takes time, effort, and consistency for a little while. But the awesome benefits of habits are that once they’re formed, they’re automatic.
It might be tempting to jump in at full duration and/or intensity, but it’s also a good way to burn out. In the beginning, it helps to focus more on when and how often you exercise rather than how hard or how long. Even a few minutes a day is enough to tell the brain “this is what we do now.” Eventually, you won’t have to remind (or force) yourself to exercise anymore. Once the habit is formed, it’s much easier to increase the intensity and duration.
Add it up
Ultimately, it’s about moving more and being more active. There are many ways to sneak in more exercise and break up the sitting. For example, if you do sit a lot, you can try setting a timer to get up and walk around every hour. Or start counting your steps and aim to increase them every day.
Many of the classic ways to get more activity are still great, like taking the stairs, parking farther away, playing with kids, or housework and cleaning. Make it a goal to find a new way to squeeze in some activity every day.
So how long does it take before exercising starts to pay off? While many of the benefits of exercise can be felt immediately afterward, such as improvements in mood and energy, lasting results will take longer. Plan on giving it at least six months to assess your brain’s progress.
When it comes to cognitive abilities, measuring and assessing can be a challenge. You may not notice a substantial increase in cognitive ability. As some cognitive decline will occur due to normal aging, it’s often about slowing it down rather than a full reversal. It’s also common for family and friends to notice a change before you do.
The bottom line on exercise and brain health
Find movement that you enjoy, and you’ll have a much easier time making time to exercise. No matter what shape you’re in or what activities you enjoy, you can find a way to optimize both your physical and your cognitive health.