Want a sharp mind? Try getting more exercise
Regular exercise comes with plenty of well-known health benefits, such as improved heart health, weight loss, stronger joints, increased energy, reduced odds of diabetes, lower blood pressure and improved mood.
But here’s a potential benefit of regular exercise you may not be aware of: exercise may boost your brainpower, reducing brain fog and improving thinking skills and memory.
Exactly how exercise improves brain health is up for debate, and researchers have many theories. One recent study found that seniors who got regular moderate to intense exercise retained more of their mental skills than those who got light or no exercise. But the results of the study may also be due to the fact that people who exercise regularly tend to have overall healthier lifestyle habits, which can affect brain health.
Exercise helps manage vascular risk factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, and it’s important to note that many studies suggest the same risk factors for heart disease and stroke also boost one’s odds of dementia.
Some suggest regular aerobic (cardio) exercise increases blood circulation and pumps more blood, oxygen and nutrients to your brain. It may even boost the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and verbal memory. Exercise reduces inflammation and stimulates the release of hormones that affect the health of brain cells and encourage growth and survival of new brain cells.
Other scientists suggest that exercise may even increase the volume of certain regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex — the parts that control thinking and memory.
Exercise can indirectly impact brain health, as well. For example, exercise improves mood and sleep while reducing stress and anxiety. Difficulty sleeping, depression and increased stress can contribute to cognitive impairment.
Exercises for your brain
Research suggests that aerobic exercise — the kind that gets your heart pumping — is responsible for boosting brain health. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. Whether that’s in 10-minute or 30-minute (or more) segments of exercise at once is up to you.
Some exercises to consider include: brisk walking, swimming, stair climbing, cycling, tennis or dancing. Even household chores such as mopping the floors, mowing the lawn or raking leaves can count. The key is to get your heart pumping enough that you break a light sweat.
If you find exercises you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to form a habit of getting regular physical activity. Join a group exercise class, work out with a friend or hire a personal trainer, and keep track of your progress as motivation to keep going.