Exercise

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Children who engage in a higher level of fitness have larger dorsal striata, the area of the brain that helps with decision making and balancing rewards.

 

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Exercise Makes Us Brainier

Researchers at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas found that engaging in a physical exercise regimen can support your overall brain health. For the study, sedentary adults ages 57-75 were randomized into a physical training or a wait-list control group. The physical training group participated in supervised aerobic exercise on a stationary bike or treadmill for one hour, three times a week for 12 weeks. Participants’ cognition, resting cerebral blood flow, and cardiovascular fitness were assessed at three time points: before beginning the physical exercise regimen, mid-way through at 6 weeks, and post-training at 12 weeks. One area where there was a clear increase in brain blood flow was the anterior cingulate, indicating higher neuronal activity and metabolic rate. There was also improved blood flow to the hippocampus.

 

Another study from the Center for Development of Advanced Medicine in Japan found that adults who moved more and expended more energy during the day were less likely to experience progression of frontal lobe decline, the area of the brain that plays a part in our mood, problem-solving, recall, and judgment.

 

In addition, a good workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein (neurotrophin), known as BDNF, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning. Neurotrophins support neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to its environment. Research has shown that mice that have exercised on a treadmill can learn faster and better than those that don’t. Exercise builds new neurons and synapses, enhances learning, induces growth factors in the brain, and helps with vascular function. 

 

Brain Benefits of Exercise

• Certain kinds of exercise trigger neural growth factors, stimulating the growth of new brain cells and strengthening the connections between existing cells.

 

• Physically active adults tend to have healthier brains, because exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces free radicals. Not only does this increase in oxygen mean an uptick in mental sharpness, but it also means older adults will have fewer health issues that impair cognition.

 

• Exercise helps alleviate depression and reduce anxiety. First, it increases norepinephrine, a chemical that helps us to moderate our response to stress. It also releases endorphins, which interact with the receptors in our brain that reduce our perception of pain, leaving us feeling positive and even euphoric. In addition, it raises our self-esteem, improves our outlook, and makes it easier for us to relax and sleep at night.

 

• People who are physically fit in their middle years are up to 35% less likely to develop serious cognitive issues later in life.

 

• Exercise helps us focus, in part because many forms of exercise require deep focus and concentration.

 

• Exercise can help us reach our goals. If you are a long-distance runner, you already know that to stay the course you need to break your runs into reachable, incremental milestones—the very same thing you must do for any task that requires consistent, long-term effort.

 

What Types of Exercise Work Best?

Aerobic (“Cardio”) Exercise

When it comes to brain health, studies show that aerobic exercise is the best. People who have engaged in regular low- to moderate-intensity workouts yield higher performance on neuropsychological function and performance tests compared to those that participate in strength and flexibility exercise. The best types of aerobic exercise are running, swimming, cycling, brisk walking, and dancing.

 

— Maintain an elevated heart rate for 30 to 45 minutes.

 

— Try to do a cardio workout 3 to 4 times a week.

 

— Make sure you keep your body properly fueled before, during, and after your workouts.

 

— Although aerobic exercise works best, we recommend that you balance your intense cardio workouts with strength and flexibility training. This is especially important as we age, because these exercises support bone health, alleviate stress, and help us to combat repetitive stress injuries and sore joints.

 

Strength (“Resistance”) Exercise

In addition to triggering neural growth factors, strength training promotes bone density, helps to control blood sugar levels, and strengthens tendons and muscles. But lest you think strength training in just for muscle-bound gym rats, think again. There are many ways to get resistance training without having to grunt through a lot of weight machines at the gym . . . and some might even surprise you.

 

The best types of strength exercises are weight machines, free weights, resistance bands and ropes, pushups, squats, lunges, dips, back extensions and abdominal crunches, resistance stretching, yoga . . . even gardening!

 

— Try to do 30 minutes of strength training, 2–3 days a week. If you do full-body workouts, leave at least 48 hours between strength-training sessions. Rest is important between training sessions because resistance training causes microtrauma to muscle tissue. As you rest between sessions, the muscles repair themselves, and grow back stronger than before.

 

— A strength workout includes repetitions (the number of times you lift and lower a weight), sets (the number of times you do a series of reps), and resistance (the amount of weight you lift).

 

— Warm up for at least 5 to 10 minutes before your strength workout to raise your body temperature, lubricate your joints, and increase blood flow.

 

—When lifting weights, use the amount of weight or resistance that you’re only able to do a maximum of 10–15 times. You build strength by fatiguing your muscles, which means the last repetition you perform should be challenging to complete.

 

— Allow yourself about 3 minutes of rest between each set.

 

Flexibility Exercise

Flexibility training is probably the one area of physical fitness that gets the least attention and is the most underrated. Yet, as we age, it becomes increasingly more important because it improves our range of motion and balance, prevents injury, and teaches us proper breathing technique, which is essential for stress management.

 

The best types of flexibility exercise are yoga, pilates, Tai Chi, Qigong, and dynamic and static stretching.

 

— Dynamic stretching (or active stretching), which involves muscle contraction and relaxation, is better prior to a workout than static stretching.

 

— Longer duration static stretches are better after a workout, as they help to lengthen muscles that have tightened up during your workout.

 

— For older adults, the American Heart Association and American College of Sports Medicine recommend two days a week of flexibility training, in sessions at least 10 minutes long.

 

3 Forms of Flexibility Training that Expand the Mind and Alleviate Anxiety

 

Tai Chi

This ancient Chinese practice is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints. It involves a self-paced series of movements that are performed in a slow, focused manner. Tai chi is very elegant—almost like a kind of dance—and it keeps the body in constant motion, incorporating deep breathing exercises.

 

Qigong

Also an ancient Chinese meditation practice, Qigong coordinates slow, rhythmic movements with breathing to cultivate a flow of energy. In addition to alleviating joint and muscle pain, this practice can improve balance and is a great detoxifier. For older adults it can be especially helpful for flexibility and, because it cultivates inner stillness and calm, and can support your concentration and mental performance. 

 

Yoga

There are many forms of yoga, but most utilize the same set of  centuries-old physical postures (hatha poses). Some forms are very dynamic, taking you through a quick-paced set of postures (called an energy series), raising your metabolism, and heating up the body. Other forms of yoga focus on proper alignment or are more meditative and restorative, with an emphasis on breathing and balance. What many people don’t realize is that many styles of yoga provide a rigorous, demanding full body workout that leaves you sweaty and spent. It has all the benefits of strength-bearing exercise, while improving flexibility and breathing at the same time. It is also excellent for promoting circulation and stimulating the lymph glands, which is detoxifying.

 

Learn more about the different styles of yoga.