Media reports are brimming with stories about nootropics and other supposed mind-enhancing supplements. From dubious drinks to mental gymnastics on smartphones to brain-boosting diets of every kind, it’s evident that people want science to provide ways for them to be smarter and faster as they age.
While the results aren’t in on all of the above approaches, exercise is the one proven method with significant and lasting benefits for your cranial command centre. Read on to learn five ways that exercise improves brain health.
1. Regular aerobic exercise improves verbal memory and helps you learn.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that regular moderate-intensity aerobic exercise enlarged the hippocampus area responsible for verbal memory and learning. How intense is moderate and how often is regular? Participants walked briskly for 120 minutes each week.
2. Strength training improves concentration and focus.
Strength training really works both the body and the mind. The key to getting the most out of it for your mind is focusing. Those are some of the conclusions from a study by the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility at Vancouver Coastal Health and the University of British Columbia. Don’t zone out in the weight room or listen to music. Just as mindfulness training constantly refocuses the mind on a mantra or the breath, good strength training employs the mind to focus attention on the muscle being trained and the movement. Training this way also helps you build a better physique.
Practising mindfulness in the weigh room is really an eye-opening experience. When you begin, you may find your mind gives out before your muscle, and your attention begins to wander in the middle of a set or contraction. Just keep practising, and you’ll see the results in the gym and the brain.
3. Physical exercise improves mood and mental health.
The Mayo Clinic reports that in a wide range of studies, regular exercise significantly boosts mood and energy levels. Related benefits included better sleep and weight loss due to regulation of blood sugar and appetite. This creates a positive feedback loop because better mental and physical health support a healthier brain function. The key, once again, is a regular program of moderate intensity, but strength training has an important role to play in keeping bones and muscles strong so you can continue to exercise.
4. Daily exercise improves the structural integrity of the brain’s white matter.
Among the many ways that exercise changes brain functioning, the strengthening of the white matter that acts as the structural framework for your brain may have the longest lasting effects. There are several associated health benefits to this development. Research shows that exercise increases blood flow capacity, which translates into better cerebrovascular health. Also, the release of neurotrophic factors like BDNF stimulates the growth of new connections between neurons. Finally, there are marked upticks in the glucose and lipid metabolism to give the brain more energy and nourishment.
5. Balance, stability and hand-eye coordination exercises enhance brain performance.
Balance and stability training involves as much brain training as muscle training, according to experts at the University of Texas and the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research. Information coming from feet and legs must match visual information that the brain has to process rapidly, leading to better response outcomes. In another study, Indiana University researchers demonstrated a positive correlation between hand-eye coordination and learning ability.
There’s no reason to choose between brain and brawn. Next time you hit the gym, remember that you can optimise your workout to make the most of your mind and your body. Stronger concentration, better mental health and better hand-eye coordination and balance keep you sharper than all the energy drinks in the world. Picking up that dumbbell could be the smartest thing you do today, so get to it!