Just as your body benefits from a physical fitness program, your brain will benefit from a fitness program too. A well-rounded physical fitness program includes some stretching, strength training, and aerobic exercise.
A well-rounded brain fitness program also includes three essential components.
Here are the three best types of brain exercises to maximize your brain power. Doing one is better than nothing, doing two is good, but doing all three will get you the best results.
Physical Exercise for Brain Fitness
Physical exercise is important for your brain health. That isn’t new.
But what is new is that recently it’s become obvious that physical exercise plays a much larger part in brain fitness than was previously believed. A recent New York Times article goes so far as to say that the relationship between exercise and your brain is the most important one for increasing brain power.
It’s a scary fact of life that as we age, our brains continually shrink measurably.
When we’re young, we lose approximately 2% of our brain volume as brain cells die. Once we reach age 60, brain cell loss accelerates to 2% loss every two years.
And for people with Alzheimer’s, cell loss is double that. Unfortunately, it is the hippocampus, the seat of our memory, which loses the most cells.
Exercise has been shown to reverse this process of brain atrophy in the hippocampus.
One studied showed this could be accomplished simply by walking regularly. Exercise encourages the growth of new brain cells just like it makes our muscles grow.
Some neuroscientists believe that exercise might do more to improve your brain than thinking does.
Exercise increases circulation which increases the supply of oxygen and glucose to your brain.
This particularly benefits the hippocampus and thus improves memory, concentration, and focus. It also benefits the prefrontal cortex where planning and reasoning occur.
By improving circulation, you are also reducing your chances of dementia that is caused by heart disease.
Exercise also improves blood sugar control which lowers the risk for diabetes. There is a correlation between diabetes and the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise increases endorphin release which in turn makes you feel happier and more relaxed, while reducing your risk of developing problems with anxiety or depression.
Brain Benefits of Walking
It seems that the most simple exercise, walking, could be the best way to improve mental power. People who walk for fitness have improved communication between the various regions of the brain.
This is caused by enhanced neural connectivity. This in turn improves skills such as planning, prioritizing, strategizing, and multitasking.
The great thing about walking is that nearly everyone can do it, no matter their age or physical condition. It requires no equipment, and most people find it enjoyable so are likely to stick with it. Many people report that their daily walk “clears their head” and helps them think clearly.
Walking seems to be the perfect kind of exercise for your brain.
Surprisingly, it’s been found that those who regularly exercise moderately have better cognitive functions than people who regularly exercise strenuously!
Strenuous exercise draws glucose and oxygen away from your brain and into your muscles. Vigorous exercise also increases free radical production.
Because your brain uses a lot of oxygen, it is very susceptible to free radical damage.
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Because of this, I recommend that anyone who wants to increase their brain power take an antioxidant supplement. This is even more important for people who exercise vigorously.
Combining physical exercise with mental exercise will give your brain an even greater boost.
The most important thing to know about exercising your brain is that as soon you get good at something, it ceases to be a challenge, and stops providing benefit. So if you can do the daily crossword in your sleep, it’s not helping.
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Nowadays, brain training programs have become popular. Some claim to continually change as you progress so that you will always find using it somewhat difficult.
But there are many other ways to challenge your brain.
A few of the best ways to challenge your brain are playing chess, studying a foreign language, playing music, or creating art. If these are things you’ve never tried before, even better! Your brain thrives on variety and a good challenge.
This might seem to you to be the least familiar and most puzzling way to boost brain function.
Mindfulness exercise is usually referred to as meditation which sounds like the exact opposite of exercise – after all, you are sitting still and thinking about nothing! But quieting your mind is actually very difficult.
The average person has upwards of 50,000 thoughts per day. Two ways to describe our brains’ thought patterns are “monkey mind” or “random thought generator.”
Most of these thoughts are not high-level thinking, and in most people roughly 80% of these thoughts are negative.
The benefits of a mindfulness state are many — it actually changes the structure of the brain.
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People who meditate have stronger neural connections between parts of the brain leading to enhanced whole brain thinking. Their brains show less atrophy due to age and have more neural synapses.
Regular meditators experience improved focus and concentration, greater creativity, stress reduction, and even improved immune function. Meditation can make you happier, smarter, and more resilient to what life throws at you.
By slowing down the rate of cellular aging it can even help you live longer.
If the benefits of meditation were available in a pill, people would be clamoring for it!
There are two main ways to meditate:
Traditional meditation involves working at quieting the mind. Some methods include focusing on your breathing or on a word or phase.
If meditation sounds a little too “far out”, think of it as a stress reduction technique. Even the prestigious Mayo Clinic recommends meditation for this purpose.
Meditation technology uses sounds that harmonize with your brain to put you in the meditation state faster and more predictably than traditional meditation.
This process goes by many names — brainwave entrainment, brainwave technology, mind technology, audio meditation, binaural beats, and other variations of these terms. It may be confusing but they generally mean the same thing.
- Start walking 20-30 minutes per day, at least 3 times a week.
- Engage in a brain stimulating activity. You can try a brain training program, start a new hobby, or take language lessons. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to try, sign up for a class and give it a whirl.
- Learn more about meditation technology. Then decide if this or traditional meditation suits you best and start meditating.
- If you decide on traditional meditation and need some guidance, I recommend (and use) Jack Kornfield’s Meditation for Beginners CD.
- If meditation technology seems more like your style, get started with a free brainwave meditation MP3 file. Download one (or more) of the choices below.
Does Meditation Change the Brain? Can It Slow Aging? at PsychologyToday.com
How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain at NYTimes.com
Older People Benefit from Exercise, but Too Much Might Be a Bad Thing at LATimes.com
Walking is Good Brain Exercise at PsychCentral.com