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Exercise Is Critical to Maintain Your Brain

Vitality happens where sweat meets synapse

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Exercise Is Critical to Maintain Your Brain

Lost in the grunts, groans, reps, and sets, we might overlook and undervalue the remarkable impact exercise has on our most vital organ, the brain. Before we get to the sweat, let’s ground ourselves in science.

Recent studies illuminate a compelling connection between regular exercise and enhanced brain health. As little as 2 1/2 hours of physical exercise per week can significantly improve memory, cognitive efficiency, and executive control (such as problem-solving) in people of all ages, and can slow or prevent the cognitive effects of aging and associated disorders.

Sally Stelling, physiotherapist at the BC Brain Wellness Program, confirms that “both aerobic and resistance training is beneficial in maintaining and improving physical function and brain health.”

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Let’s get moody … or not

Exercise also has a profound impact on mood regulation, serving as a potent antidote to the stresses of modern life. Basically, exercise aids in secretion of endorphins, hormones, neurotransmitters, and a slew of other regulators that not only elevate mood and brain function in the moment but actually work to rewire neural pathways in the brain as early as your first exercise session.

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Your brain on proteins

The food you consume can also play a major role in the prevention of cognitive disorders. A 2022 Harvard study that followed more than 77,000 men and women over 20 years found that for each 5 percent of dietary calories, those who ate carbohydrates instead of animal proteins lowered the risk of developing dementia by up to 11 percent; plant proteins lowered risk by 26 percent.

If switching to plant-based proteins seems daunting, consider adding a scoop of protein powder into your diet each day for a step in the right direction.

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Rewiring your circuits

“Neuroplasticity is currently thought to be one of the processes that can occur in the brain that assists with the learning of new tasks and creating new ‘pathways’ that can be accessed,” says Stelling.

“Current evidence suggests that cardiovascular exercise causes biochemical changes in the brains of animals. There are several growth factors that are seen to increase in response to exercise. These growth factors all play a role in exercise-induced angiogenesis which facilitates neuroplasticity.”

The next time you hit a mental roadblock, consider trading your desk chair for a set of dumbbells.

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Brain-boosting workout

Try three rounds (or four if you’re feeling squirrely) of this cardiovascular, circuit-rewiring circuit to boost your brain and brawn.

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The World’s Greatest Stretch

3 sets of 8 repetitions per side

·         Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart.

·         Take a large step forward with your right foot into a lunge position.

·         Place your right hand on the ground inside your right foot.

·         Rotate your torso to the left, reaching your left arm toward the ceiling, opening up your chest.

·         Hold this position for a few seconds, then return your left hand to the ground.

·         Step your right foot back to meet your left foot, returning to a standing position.

·         Repeat the same sequence on the other side. 

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Walkout Push-Up

3 sets of 10 repetitions

·         Stand with your feet hip-width apart and arms by your sides.

·         Bend at the waist and place your hands on the ground in front of you, keeping your legs straight.

·         Walk your hands forward until you’re in a plank position, with your wrists aligned under your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from head to heels.

·         Perform a push-up by bending your elbows and lowering your chest toward the ground, then push back up to the plank position.

·         Walk your hands back toward your feet, returning to the starting position with legs straight.

·         Stand up straight and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

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Wall-Sit Wall Angels

3 sets of 12 repetitions

·         Find a clear wall space and lean against it with your back flat against the wall.

·         Lower yourself into a wall-sit position by sliding down the wall until your thighs are parallel to the ground, forming a 90-degree angle at your knees.

·         Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and flat on the ground.

·         Extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder height, bend your elbows at 90 degrees, and press the backs of your hands against the wall.

·         Keeping your back and arms in contact with the wall, slowly slide your arms up overhead.

·         Continue to slide your arms upward as far as you can comfortably go without arching your back or allowing your arms to lift off the wall.

·         Hold the top position for a moment, then slowly lower your arms back down to the starting position.

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Land Swimmers

3 sets of 30-second intervals

·         Lie face down on an exercise mat or the floor with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight out behind you.

·         Lift your chest and legs slightly off the ground, keeping your neck in a neutral position.

·         Simultaneously raise your right arm and left leg as high as you comfortably can, while keeping the opposite arm and leg on the ground.

·         Hold the raised position for a moment, then lower your right arm and left leg back down to the starting position.

·         Repeat the movement on the opposite side, raising your left arm and right leg while keeping the other arm and leg on the ground.

·         Continue to alternate sides in a smooth, controlled motion, mimicking the fluttering motion of a swimmer’s arms and legs.

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Where to begin?

If our exercises don’t appeal to you, that’s okay! Stelling suggests other ways to incorporate exercise into your daily life, such as parking farther away from your destination, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, gardening, cooking, and housework.

Says Stellar: “The saying ‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you’ is particularly applicable when looking at exercise and brain health.” She adds, “The most beneficial exercise is something that you will stick to.” She further reminds us to build up intensity slowly and to exercise safely!

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The power of being mindful

According to a research review published in the British Medical Bulletin, “Mindfulness is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”

Of course, being mindful each moment of the day would be exhausting, so many of us zone out occasionally throughout our day. Doing things as simple as focusing on breath during exercise, a daily evening body scan, or a morning meditation can help refocus.

The reviewers in the British Medical Bulletin report identified “many … conditions, including depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, addiction, psychosis, pain, hypertension, weight control, cancer-related symptoms, and prosocial behaviours” that can be improved with mindfulness.

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Brain and body boosters

The good news? If you eat a balanced and well-rounded diet, you likely don’t need supplements. The bad news: anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of Canadians are deficient in one or more micronutrients, with vitamins A and D, calcium, and magnesium deficiencies leading the way.

Check out this quick list of supplements that might help boost your brain and body:

Supplement

Benefits 

greens powders and green tea

may help improve cognitive and memory function

choline

may be helpful in reducing the effects of aging on cognition

creatine

benefits may include muscular recovery, enhanced brain function, and brain trauma recovery

L-theanine

may help relieve stress, improve mood, aid sleep, and improve attention

medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)

have been found to have stabilizing and cognitive-improving effects in patients with Alzheimer’s disease

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