How to build a healthy brain – Part 1: Exercise
I believe that there are 4 pillars to building a healthy brain; they are sleep, nutrition, stress management and exercise. Each is equally important and dependent on the success of the other categories to achieve optimal brain function. If one pillar is lagging, it will negatively impact the others. For example, if you sleep really well and have your exercise nailed down, but you still eat fast food and don’t manage your stress properly, you shouldn’t expect that your brain fog will disappear completely.
In this series of articles, I will discuss one ‘pillar’ in a separate post and will start by discussing the impact exercise and activity have on brain function, cognition, memory and mental acuity.
Physical exercise & activity
I am assuming you already know most of the reasons why you should exercise for your physical health. If you need a refresher here are a few articles that can serve as a reminder – (Health, Libido, Longevity, Body Fat, Metabolism) As I alluded above, this post is on the cognitive and mental benefits that come from regular exercise.
Did you know that exercise improves memory? Researchers at the University of British Columbia concluded that regular exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for verbal memory and learning.
An article written by Heidi Godman in the Harvard Health Publications (read here) outlines how exercise improves brain function through direct and indirect means. Directly, exercise increases insulin sensitivity, decreases inflammation, causes growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and increases the number and health of new brain cells. Indirectly, exercise improves sleep and reduces stress and anxiety. Pretty convenient seeing as how sleep and stress both impact memory and brain function. Similar to the research mentioned above, this article also concludes that people who exercise regularly have larger volume in parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. Exercise grows your muscles and your brain!
Most of the research to date on this topic looks at the benefits from activities like moderate intensity walking, swimming, biking, tennis, etc. However, the evidence is mounting on the cognitive benefits of resistance training. A 2010 review on this topic was published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. They concluded through their research that resistance training improves several factors of cognition including a marked improvement in memory and memory-related tasks.
Exercise has even been shown to decrease the markers of Alzheimer’s as we age. And more specifically, resistance training seems to have emerged as the most beneficial approach. Dr. Teresa Liu Ambrose out of the University of British Columbia is a researcher in aging, mobility and cognitive research. She has published several papers on the improvements of cognition and brain health related to resistance training. You can read more about her research on Alzheimers here.
It appears that the best approach to boosting the capacity of the muscle in your head would be to involve both resistance training and some low to moderate activity such as hiking, biking and swimming in your regimen. This should cover all of your bases from a physical standpoint.
The emphasis of this blog is on the cognitive benefits of physical movement and exercise, however I feel the need to mention mental training as well. There is strong evidence suggesting this has a positive impact on brain function.
Flexing your brain muscle is essential to continued brain health and development. Things like – learning to play an instrument; learning about something that interests you; attending a seminar; developing a new skill like cooking or photography; engaging in challenging exercises like crosswords, mind teasers, puzzles; reading; listening to a podcast or audiobooks, etc. All of these things contribute to developing a ‘strong brain’. Try to incorporate one or two of these things on a weekly basis as part of your routine.
- Perform one – 2 challenging resistance training workouts per week
- Participate in frequent, low to moderate activity like hiking or cycling on a weekly basis
- Learn something new, read something that makes you think, do a crossword puzzle, etc.
The next post in this series will overview the impact that sleep has on cognition and memory.
Thank you for reading, comments are always welcome.