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Physical Exercise Can Keep You Mentally Fit

“All brawn, no brain” is an inaccurate cliché. Far from being a no-brainer activity, physical exercise can help to keep you mentally fit. Exercise does not just build strong muscles; it also builds strong brains.

Studies have shown that people who engage in regular exercise have better levels of concentration, focus, and memory and faster reaction times than people who don’t work out.

Why is exercise so good for the brain?
There are several theories why exercise is good for your most important organ. Exercise creates new blood vessels in response to the increased demand for oxygen and nutrients. A better blood supply means a better supply of oxygen and glucose, the fuel that runs your brain.

Exercise increases the concentration of norepinephrine, a brain chemical that acts as a modulator of other chemicals associated with the way we respond to stress and emotions. Stress can interfere learning and memory since elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with these mental abilities.

Exercise “toughens” the body and brain by mimicking the physiological responses to stress like heightened blood pressure, faster heart beat, and increased muscular tension. If you are physically fit, you are better able to deal with stress and this could, in turn, make your mental processes function better. As we all know from personal experience, it’s hard to think clearly when we are stressed out.

Exercise makes nerve cells produce more “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” or BDNF, at least in lab animals. BDNF acts like a “brain fertilizer”, which makes nerve cells grow and multiply and strengthens their connections with other neurons. What’s true for lab rats may also be true for gym rats.

Need to clear your mind? Got a problem that you can’t seem to solve? Take a walk. You just might “see the light”. Walking not only improves blood flow to the brain but like other forms of physical activity, it triggers the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, chemicals that stimulate the brain.

Mentally Young
Studies indicate the compared to their non-exercising peers, seniors who work out at least three times a week are less likely to develop dementia and have better memory, learning ability, concentration, abstract reasoning, and “executive functions” (the ability to plan and organize).

A study of sedentary people aged 60 to 75 found that six months of walking for one hour three times a week led to an improvement of 15% on mental tests even though their cardio-respiratory fitness improved only slightly.

Brain scans of men and women ages 55 to 79 with fitness levels ranging from sedentary to very fit found that exercise can reduce the age-related loss of brain tissue density, specifically in areas involved in everyday functioning. In other words, the fit seniors had less brain shrinkage.

Young brains can benefit from exercise too. In one study, young people aged 18 to 24 significantly increased decision-making speed and accuracy after running for thirty minutes on a treadmill

Even younger brains need exercise too. Many studies indicate that children who exercise perform better in school. A University of Illinois study found that fit children between 7 and 11 years old performed attention tasks faster and more accurately than their less fit classmates. A British study discovered that fit children aged 10 and 11 scored higher than average in their exams.

Smarter Babies
Exercise might even help produce smarter babies. A recent study found that physically fit mice gave birth to pups who had 40% more brain cells than those born to couch potato mice. The increase was in the part of brain having to do with learning and memory. There is no proof yet that this happens in human beings but exercise during pregnancy has many other benefits anyway. So a fit mom-to-be is healthier than a non-exercising one.

How to Exercise
A meta-analysis (an analysis of many studies) found that for older adults, exercise programs that combined aerobic exercise and strength training produced better results in improving mental fitness than aerobics or strength training alone.

This may not be true for younger individuals. Phillip Tomporowski, an exercise scientist at the University of Georgia reviewed 43 studies and found that steady-paced aerobic exercise (as compared to high intensity interval type exercise) worked the best. This is not to say that strength training and stretching are not good for you but that aerobic exercise seems to be the type of exercise that is most beneficial for boosting brain-power.

While other scientists believe that at least 30 minutes of exercise is needed, Tomporowski believes that 15 to 20 minutes of any kind of moderate-intensity exercise will result in benefits for the brain.

Listening to music while exercising more than doubled the test results for verbal fluency for cardiac rehabilitation patients compared to when they exercised without music. This may or may not be true for all other people.

Research shows that exercising to exhaustion or over-training will fog up your brain. Exercising moderately is the smartest strategy.

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