Working out your brain
Exercise that gets your heart pumping and muscles moving is an excellent way to improve overall health. What’s good for your body is also good for your brain.
There is no medical treatment that will delay the onset or worsening of memory disorders and dementia, says Dr. Julie Brody Magid of McLean Hospital in Harvard. Certain drugs can help to slow mental decline once symptoms appear. Cardio exercise is a proven way to protect the brain against cognitive decline and may even improve cognitive function if problems arise.
Scientists have proven that low-grade chronic inflammation can become a silent killer, contributing to heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases. Harvard Medical School experts offer simple tips on how to combat inflammation and remain healthy.
How can cardio improve your brain function? Many theories exist. Researchers have focused on the ways it can improve the blood flow to your brain, strengthen your heart, reduce inflammation, and encourage the growth of new brain cells.
Cardio, for example, activates a molecule known as brain-derived neurotrophic (BDNF). BDNF is involved in the repair of brain cells as well as the production of new ones. It has also been linked to a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores and retrieves memory.
The study, published in Nature Metabolism on August 20, 2021, found that the hormone Irisin, which is produced by the muscles during exercise, protects mice from brain inflammation.
The study suggested that exercise could help increase irisin and counteract the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers speculated that, although this study was an animal one, it could also be applied to humans based on their previous research.
Cardio exercises strengthen the heart and improve blood flow to the brain, especially its white matter. Reduced blood flow to your brain can cause vascular dementia. A better blood flow can also clear toxins out of the brain. This helps to protect against inflammation and promote neurogenesis (the development of new brain cells).
The type doesn’t matter.
How much cardio does your brain need? This question is still being researched, but the answer may vary depending on your fitness level. In a 2015 study, 20 minutes of moderate activity produced the greatest cognitive boost in non-athletic individuals. Researchers in the January 2021 Journal of Sports Science discovered that for triathletes and trained cyclists, 45 minutes of moderate exercise was optimal.
Dr. Brody Magid says that until more information is available, you should aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, according to federal guidelines. She recommends that you stick to a routine that your primary physician has approved.
Again, there is no clear winner when it comes to cardio. It is important to challenge yourself. According to Dr. Brody Magid, “just as your body gets used to the routine and does not get stronger with it, your mind can also get too comfortable when you exercise regularly.”
She recommends mixing up your cardio workouts by varying the intervals and trying new challenging activities whenever you can. Try swimming if you walk regularly. If you normally cycle, consider hiking. Consider cardio exercises that include mental challenges and stimulation. These exercises are a great way to exercise your mind and body at the same time.
Non-contact boxing, for example, requires you to memorize various punching sequences. You must, therefore, concentrate and remain focused. Tennis or pickleball needs you to be able to respond to an opponent’s shots and plan your return. “Any movement is better than no movement when it comes the brain and exercising. The more you move the more your brain is protected and boosted,” Dr. Brody Magid says.