Exercise is one of those divisive activities that has the world split. On the one hand, you have the gym rats who never want to stop pumping iron and slurping down protein shakes. But on the other hand, you have people who don’t want to touch a HIIT class with a ten-foot pole.
If you fall into the latter category, it might help you to know that physical exercise does much more than just build up your muscles and shed some excess weight. It also has profound cognitive benefits for your brain function.
Let’s learn about how different types of exercise can benefit your overall wellness and take a look at some of the best exercises to support your physical and mental health.
How Does Exercise Support Brain Health?
We know that deadlifts and pull-ups can tone your muscles and make you look big and “swole.” But regular exercise can also strengthen your brain and cognitive abilities.
Physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is beneficial for maintaining brain health. It can even help support functioning for people developing cognitive disorders like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
So how do we know this? One study of 454 older adults found that the more active participants scored better on memory tests and other cognition exams. Not to mention, increased physical activity was associated with a 31 percent lower risk of developing dementia.
We’ll need to do a little bit more research, but it’s believed that some of the main reasons for these benefits are that physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation, and lowers levels of stress hormones. It also might promote neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. These improvements happen in the hippocampus – a key area of the brain for memory.
What Are the Best Exercises for Brain Health?
Since cardiovascular exercise is considered the best for improving cognitive function, many exercises for brain health are more aerobic. You can achieve brain training while focusing on physical training.
Walking is one of the most accessible exercises on the entire planet and is also one of the best. Walking can burn a ton of calories while being moderate-intensity, and it can even work to boost your heart health and physical health.
However, walking can improve brain health by increasing blood flow to the brain, which has been associated with lower Alzheimer’s risk and boosted mood. Walking just 30 extra minutes a day can have profound effects.
You can enhance the physical benefits of walking by going on a hike or walking on an incline to get a little more fat-burning action into your workout. You can even do this with a friend to enhance your mood even more.
Rowing is an exercise that can provide many of the same brain benefits as walking because of its ability to get the blood pumping. However, it can also boost your self-confidence and self-esteem more quickly than many other exercises.
When we feel confident in our bodies, our cognitive health can improve, and rowing is an exercise that might get you there sooner than most. This is because rowing is a full-body exercise that uses almost every major muscle.
It’s the perfect combination of cardio and strength training at one time. It’s a postural exercise that strengthens the core, burns the legs, and simultaneously bulks up the arms.
Swimming is one of those exercises that’s so fun that you might forget you’re working out. Swimming is a low-impact aerobic movement that burns calories and fat quickly. However, it can also provide a unique boost to brain health.
Working out, and perhaps swimming specifically, can help your brain manufacture more of a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein generated by the brain that helps repair cells and supports the creation of new ones. Swimming can increase levels of BDNF, which has positive cognitive and mood-regulating effects.
It has even been found to help improve sleep and enhance circulation. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun! So throw those swim trunks on and lather on the sunscreen because a pool day might be in your future.
Yoga is one of the best exercises for combining strength training, balance, spirituality, breathwork, and mental wellness all into one place. Regular yoga and meditation can improve mental well-being and enhance brain activity in many different ways.
Practicing yoga promotes mental clarity and calmness while also increasing body awareness. It can work to relieve stress, relax the mind, and center your attention to sharpen concentration. It’s like a tour de force of mental and physical prowess.
Yoga can be challenging to get into, but start with beginner postures or take a beginner’s class to get your feet wet before diving into more advanced techniques. You’ll begin to notice the positive effects much sooner than later.
5. Strength Training
Strength training might not be an aerobic exercise per se, but that doesn’t mean it won’t benefit your brain health. It’s been found that strength training might protect the brain from degeneration.
A long-term study found that subregions of the hippocampus were protected from degeneration. It found that in individuals vulnerable to dementia, there was a less significant reduction in hippocampal regions compared to those with no strength training.
In other words, lifting weights can also lift your mood and cognition. Try to focus on compound exercises that use multiple muscle groups at one time (like squat thrusters or deadlifts) to burn more calories while also making your workouts even more efficient.
What Are Other Ways To Support Physical and Mental Health?
Exercising is a powerful tool for enhancing your mental well-being and giving yourself some physical benefits of exercise at the same time. But it’s not the only way to help fight against cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, or memory loss.
Sure, you can exercise every single day. But you might not notice its effects if you don’t lead a healthy lifestyle. Your diet can significantly impact physical wellness and brain health all at once.
Certain foods can possess antioxidant properties, which work to support cell health and a sharp mind.
These include leafy green vegetables, berries, most fruits, fatty fish, tea and coffee, and nuts. Try to incorporate these into a high protein diet to fight cravings and brain fog.
Of course, don’t deprive yourself of that scoop of ice cream or slice of cake. It’s all about finding a sustainable balance between foods that feel good and foods that truly are good.
Get Enough Sleep
You’ll spend more time sleeping throughout your life than working at a typical nine-to-five job. And while that’s a relief to hear, it also emphasizes the importance of snoozing enough each night for your brain health.
When you sleep, the brain removes toxins, works to improve working memory function, replenishes your cognition, and protects existing cells. Sleep is one of the most important daily things to shield our brain health from mental impairment.
So, stock up on some comfy pillows and make sure your sleeping environment is nice and cozy to make it easier for you to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
Exercise has many physical benefits but can be just as advantageous to a healthy brain. Exercising can improve blood flow to the brain, which is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline.
Some of the best forms of exercise are aerobic or cardiovascular. These include walking, rowing, and swimming. However, yoga is a resistance training workout that seeks to reduce stress and anxiety, whereas strength training can improve confidence and restore cognitive functioning.
Either way, ensure you’re providing your brain with the nutrients it needs post-workout to keep trucking along. Check out our blog in the MOSH Pit for more brain-boosting information!
Physical exercise and activity may be important in reducing dementia risk at any age | Neurology
How Exercise Protects Your Brain's Health | Cleveland Clinic
6 Brain Benefits of Walking | UNC Health Talk
What Are the Health Benefits of Rowing? | Cleveland Clinic
5 Reasons Why Swimming is Great for Brain Health | US Masters Swimming
Benefits of Yoga | American Osteopathic Association
Strength training can help protect the brain from degeneration | The University of Sydney