Physical Exercise Might Be the Best Brain Exercise

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Brain exercises boost intelligence, memory, concentration and overall brain fitness. Learn how to use physical exercise to get these benefits for your brain.

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Mental activities like online brain training, playing chess, or learning a second language are considered good brain exercises.

They get a lot of press for their ability to increase intelligence, memory, and concentration, and keep your brain fit for life.

While these kinds of mental stimulation are excellent for boosting brain power, the best kind of exercise might not be an armchair activity.

There’s substantial evidence that physical exercise might be the single most powerful exercise for the brain. (1)

Exercise has been found to boost the brains of children, seniors, and everyone in between. (2)

Here are some of the ways physical exercise can make you smarter and happier, while protecting your brain from mental disorders, aging, and degeneration.

Regular Physical Exercise Increases Brain Plasticity 

Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is your brain’s ability to keep growing and changing throughout your lifetime.

Until fairly recently it was believed your brain was static and that you were born with a set number of brain cells and level of intelligence. (3)

But scientists now know this is not true.

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Brain plasticity is associated with improved intelligence, memory, mood and happiness, along with increased brain volume that can help prevent degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. (4)

There are several known ways to increase brain plasticity and exercise is one of the best. (5)

Even as little as one 30-minute exercise session will improve brain plasticity. (6

Exercise Delivers More Oxygen and Nutrients to the Brain

Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and glucose.

But since it can’t store either, it relies on a steady supply from blood circulation. 

Exercise increases circulation delivering more oxygen, glucose, and nutrients to your brain. 

Increased circulation also helps remove debris, like toxins and metabolic waste products, that builds up in your brain.

The average human brain has an amazing 400 miles of blood vessels. 

But this number gradually decreases with age. (7)

Exercise can help offset brain aging by building new capillaries.

Exercise Results in a Bigger Brain — and a Better Memory

Exercise increases brain volume by increasing the levels of brain chemicals that promote new brain cell formation and new neural connections. (8)

Exercise especially increases the number of brain cells in the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. (9)

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Two hours of walking per week was shown to increase hippocampus volume by 2%. (10)

The effect of walking on the hippocampus is evident in both healthy adults and those with mild cognitive impairment. (1112)

Exercise Increases Your Resilience to Stress

Chronic stress is a disaster for your brain.

The stress hormone cortisol kills existing brain cells and halts the production of new ones. (13

Stress impairs your memory and your ability to make good decisions.  (1415)

It negatively impacts every cognitive function. (16

Stress increases your risk of mental illnesses of all kinds now and degenerative brain diseases later. (171819)

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But exercise can overcome the impact of chronic stress on your brain. (20)

It decreases cortisol release and improves your reaction to stress.

It actually reorganizes the brain so that it responds better to stress. (21)

Amazingly, the exercise you do today can protect you from anxiety and depression for up to 5 years, even if you stop exercising. (22)

But why would you want to?

Exercise Makes You Happy

Exercise can make you happier by boosting your “feel good” brain chemicals — serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. (2324

Serotonin plays a large role in mood.

woman leapingLow serotonin is widely believed to be responsible for depression. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft relieve symptoms of depression by increasing brain levels of serotonin.

But SSRIs can have serious side effects and they don’t work for 40% of those who try them. (25)

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Exercise has been found to work better for depression than the SSRI drug Zoloft — and with no side effects. (26)

Dr. John Ratey, renowned psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied physical exercise and its impact on the brain.

He found that exercise raises baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors.

Exercise also boosts your levels of endorphins. 

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Endorphins, along with dopamine, are responsible for the euphoric feeling known as “runner’s high.” (2728)

You don’t have to be a runner.

Any form of long duration, rhythmic exercise can get you into this state. (29)

Exercise Alleviates Symptoms of Many Brain Disorders

Over and over again it’s been shown that exercise relieves symptoms of a wide range of brain disorders including ADHD, OCD, anxiety, depression, and addictions. (30)

Exercise can protect your brain against aging and degenerative disease including Alzheimer’s. (31)

One way it does this is by protecting your telomeres.

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Telomeres are protective end caps on your chromosomes, similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces.

Shortened telomeres lead to atrophy of brain cells, while longer telomeres lead to the production of new brain cells. (32)

Telomere length is thought to be the best predictor for your risk of getting age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s — even better than medical diagnostic tools. (33

Exercise and the Brain: What Kind? How Much?

It’s crystal clear that exercise is one of the best things you can do for brain health and function.

But what kind of exercise gives the most brain benefits? And how much should you do?

Dr. Ratey believes that sprint bursts will have you feeling mentally brighter for the rest of the day. (34)

Here’s the pattern he recommends:

  • Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds.
  • Reduce your speed to a gentle pace for the next five minutes.
  • Sprint again.
  • Repeat four times for a total of five sprints.  

Walking is generally considered one of the best all-around exercises.

It’s no coincidence that people often take a walk to think better or clear their mind. (35)

woman doing yogaAncient no-impact practices like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong provide significant mind-body benefits.

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Yoga can reduce stress and improve concentration and mood. (36)

Tai chi and qi gong give your brain a surprisingly good workout.

They increase brain volume and improve memory. (37, 38)

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You can get more of a brain boost from your workout by exercising outdoors.

Compared with indoor exercise, it increases vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem while lowering tension, depression, and fatigue. (39)

Spending time in nature improves memory recall and attention span. (40)

That may be one of the reasons gardening is one of the best overall physical exercises. (41

Gardeners have significantly lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners. (42)

The American Heart Association and The American College of Sports Medicine recommend healthy adults do one of the following activities: (43)

  • Moderate level of walking, swimming, running, or biking for 30 minutes, five days a week. OR
  • Intense level of walking, swimming, running, or biking for 20 minutes, three days a week.

They also recommend doing some strength training two days per week.

As you can see, there is no single right way to exercise. 

Since your brain thrives on variety, Dr. Ratey recommends varying your exercise routine for the most benefit. (44)

There is no doubt that the very best type of physical exercise is the one that you actually do. 

So find something you enjoy so you’ll stick with it.

Developing the habit of daily exercise may be the best thing you can do to keep your brain healthy, fit, and fully functional for a lifetime.

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