Exercise: The True Brain Food The benefits of staying active

There is more to fitness than well-toned muscles. That’s because the body and the mind are interconnected. So as you train your body, you train your brain. It’s amazing how many ways physical exercise affects your brain:

• Your nervous system functions at a higher level.

• Exercise renews your brain connections, causing new stem cells to grow and stimulating nerve growth factors. As someone wrote, “Like Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

• It helps stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s.

• It benefits brain disorders like ADHD and the accompanying hyperactivity and ability to focus.

• It affects your mood and releases pleasure chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which boost your morale, making you feel calm, happy, even euphoric.

• It immediately readies your brain for learning. You’ll be more alert, think more clearly, perform better.

• It gives you a renewed vitality and an overall feeling of well-being.

• It helps you sleep.


Although both aerobic activities and strength training have benefits to the brain, more complicated forms of exercising — tennis, soccer — provide the biggest boost. This is because these sports tax more parts of the brain, helping it to grow. It’s said the best time of day to train is the time you’re able to actually do it. However, some research shows the best time to be the late afternoon. Why? Because muscle strength and body temperature peak between 4 and 6 p.m., you’ve already eaten a couple of meals so your body is fueled up, your threshold for pain is highest, and you have mental clarity at that time.


A close relationship between body, mind, muscle and memory is created by the 100 billion neurons in your 3-pound brain continually organizing themselves to respond to stimuli of skeletal muscles. Tests revealed that learning a new motor skill changed the brain as well. If you decrease activity, you lose receptors. However, when you become active again, you also get the receptors back.


Thanks to (wonderful) technology and the resulting conveniences, we’ve become quite sedentary. And fat. This, of course, has also made us a country of people with declining physical and mental health. In recent articles, I read that because of budget cuts there is only one state in the United States that still requires daily physical activity of students from the first through the 12th grade! And that almost 50 percent of people ages 12 to 21 don’t participate in any type of cardio or other vigorous type of exercise on a regular basis. Other studies showed how school children spent an estimated 4.8 hours per day on the computer, watching television or playing video games.

Exercise is sometimes narrowly defined because people do it for weight loss or body image. Think of exercise as an activity that combines your mind and body. Being realistic about your goals and your choice of exercise, as usual, is encouraged. It’s still a matter of choosing a form of movement that you’ll continue over the long term, even though you’ll immediately benefit both mentally and physically. Be sure to choose activities to fit your lifestyle and personality. Do you prefer to be outdoors or inside to exercise? Do you want the company of others (socialization) at a gym or with friends? Or are you happier to walk on the treadmill in the privacy of your home when it’s convenient?


Why walking? Because walking improves blood circulation, moving more oxygen and glucose to your brain. Your leg muscles use less oxygen than during more strenuous forms of exercise. You can actually “clear your head” with increased oxygen and blood flow to the brain. Walkers tested against those who just stretched and toned with weights for exercise improved 15 percent on mental tests, whereas the nonwalkers did not gain any mental benefits. A study of senior citizens who started walking for exercise showed they improved in memory skills, learning ability, concentration and abstract reasoning, resulting in better abilities planning, organizing and multitasking. A big plus — walking cut their stroke risk by half. All of this for walking as little as 20 to 30 minutes per day three or more times per week. Every extra mile walked per week helps reduce decline in cognitive abilities.

Bump it up a notch for brain cell survival and to delay or prevent a neurodegenerative disease. It’s been found that newly formed brain cells just die in sedentary individuals. Running appears to save many of these cells from dying. It also appears that the more one runs, the more cells are developed. And this doesn’t mean running marathons; just another mile or two per week will help. You don’t have to be a speedster — just move enough to “jog” your memory! Frankly, overtraining can often lead to fatigue rather than alertness.


* Shoot for slow to moderate walking, hiking, biking or swimming for 30 minutes three times per week.

* Even better would be one-half to one hour of exercise four to five times a week.

* Experiment with two mix-and-match sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening. Walk or swim 15 to 20 minutes in the morning, and then for 10 to 15 minutes in the evening.

* Include 8 to 12 minutes of sweating and hard-breathing exercise in your sessions, if possible.

* Keep it fun. Alternate speeds, pick a new route, include some other exercises at points along the path, and add some zigging and zagging or skipping.


You can take away from these studies that mental decline in many older persons mainly results from disuse and could therefore be reversed through some form of exercise. According to research, the brain can continue to change at any age. You do not lose mass quantities of brain cells as you get older … a 25-year-old brain is much the same as a 75-year-old brain. Exercise is a natural part of life. Movement was necessary to survive, to hunt and gather, to farm and raise livestock, for manual/physical labor, for military purposes and, yes, for transportation.


Try Tai Chi or yoga. Travel. Throw some reading or crossword puzzles in with your other activities. Learn a language, play chess or B-I-N-G-O. Off you go.


Since depression affects memory and effectiveness/functionality in a negative way, you can reverse symptoms by exercising to help you relax, focus and remember. Tests of a young group of males and females, 70 percent being depressed, showed that after just an hour of aerobics, they felt less anger, fatigue and tension.

Another study involved 50-plus-year-olds, already diagnosed with depression. They were divided into three groups and given a treatment of either an antidepressant drug, only exercise or both. All participants felt better after four months. However, after an additional six months, the exercisers experienced a much lower rate of relapse than the other groups.

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