You probably started working out because you know it’s good for your body. Physical activity helps decrease the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, reduces the likelihood of developing certain types of cancer, strengthens our muscles, and protects our bones.
What most of us don’t realize is how exercise is good for our brains, too (but you will soon — read on to learn more about six big brain benefits of exercise).
Exercise prevents memory loss.
Deep inside our brain, there’s an area called the hippocampus. This small, horseshoe-shaped structure serves a major role in learning and memory, and it shrinks with age. But a recent study shows regular aerobic activity increases the size of the hippocampus, protecting against memory loss. Another study found that even modest amounts of daily walking were associated with a positive change in hippocampus volume.
Exercise helps us think faster.
Our brains contain approximately 100 billion neurons, a special type of cell that transmits information. Neurons are connected to one another by synapses, and how well neurons communicate with one another is controlled by what’s known as synaptic plasticity. Exercise improves synaptic plasticity, which allows us to process information more quickly.
Exercise boosts higher-level brain function.
Regular physical activity doesn’t just improve our brain’s speed and memory. It also positively impacts our brain’s executive functions—like attention, problem-solving, abstract thinking, self-control, decision-making, emotional regulation, and more.
Exercise protects against dementia.
Dementia is a complex condition that negatively impacts memory, reasoning skills, and even personality, and it affects nearly 50 million people worldwide. The “why” of dementia is complicated, but research shows we can protect ourselves from about 35% of risk factors simply by modifying our lifestyle—including our level of physical activity. Weight training is particularly beneficial for women beginning to show early signs of dementia.
Exercise reduces depression.
Let’s not forget that our brains support our emotional wellbeing! Exercise may help repair certain parts of the brain damaged by depression, and burning just 350 calories three times a week “can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants.” In addition, yoga may be particularly helpful in managing depression and anxiety because it stimulates the production of a related neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric (GABA).
Exercise improves our ability to learn.
Physical activity increases the number of growth factors in our brain, which helps it make new connections between neurons—and that’s exactly what we need to learn new things. The most significant brain benefits come from complicated activities like tennis and dance classes. (And, it seems reasonable to say, whole-body workouts.) Exercise also stimulates the production of neurotrophins, proteins that support neurons, “leading to greater brain plasticity, and therefore, better memory and learning.”
Brain Boosters in Our Workouts
While all physical activity is good for your brain, our workouts go a step further, combining specific movements designed to activate various regions of the brain and maximize the brain-boosting benefits of exercise. In our routines, you’ll find:
Cross lateral movements (or movement that crosses the midline of the body, such as reaching our right hand towards our left foot), which helps to “bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, allowing for electrical impulses and information to pass freely between the two, which is essential for physical coordination as well as cerebral activities, such as learning language, reading, and hand-to-eye coordination.”
Walking backward, which stimulates the brain much more than your typical forward movement.
Hand-eye coordination movements, such as throwing and catching a ball (especially while your feet are marching or side-stepping), that help sharpen your reaction time and even your balance. (That’s one of the main reasons we’ve included our “Have a Ball” routine in Walk Strong 2.0!)
Balancing gives our cerebellum and sensory systems a workout. Dr. Marie Pasinski, a neurologist, and Harvard Medical School faculty member explains, “Sensory information from the nerves in our legs travels up through the spinal cord and into the cerebellum. The cerebellum integrates these inputs to fine-tune motor activity allowing us to maintain our balance. Like any other skill, practice makes perfect. The more you stimulate these pathways the stronger they become over time.”
We’ve also created custom brain training routines in conjunction with Dr. Pasinski.
Our “Brain Fitness” session, found exclusively in our Walk Strong: 6 Week Total Transformation System, was developed in conjunction with Dr. Pasinski. This workout includes specific moves such as “box-step-overs,” that help boost brain activity. Dr. Pasinski explains, “Learning and initiating new patterns of movement engages the prefrontal and frontal cortex… Alternating right- and left-sided movements limbers up your brain as well as your body.” She adds, “Exercises that challenge your memory while you are moving double the brain benefits.”
The “Brain Booster” mile in Walk On: 5 Fat Burning Miles includes specific coordination challenges and drills to sharpen your mental skills. And the “Brain Training” mile included in our sequel video, Walk On: 5 Mix and Match Miles offers new coordination and agility moves to keep strengthening your body and your brain.
The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Brain
John Ratey, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize brain function.” But, according to Ratey, regular exercise is key. While a two-day-a-week exercise habit might provide benefits to your body, the infrequent physical activity won’t get you the cognitive advantages.
Of course, for most people, the idea of working out regularly sounds great, but then reality hits. It’s tough to develop an exercise habit when you’re busy, overwhelmed and confused by all of the outlandish claims in advertisements landing in your social media feeds.
I can help! Regular exercise is good for your body and your brain, and the best way to add exercise to your lifestyle is by choosing a workout program you’ll love. (You can learn more about all of our programs and where to find them here on our website).
Physical activity is good for your body—and for your brain. Regular exercise prevents memory loss, helps us think faster, boosts higher-level brain function, protects against dementia, reduces depression and improves our ability to learn new things.
Take Action: Mix up your routine with some basic brain boosting moves. Try one or more of these ideas:
Walk backward for a bit on your regular walk. Just be sure to do so in a safe space where there is no danger of tripping over something or traffic!
Stand on one leg while brushing your teeth. You get bonus brain points for brushing with your non-dominant hand!
Engage in a game of throw and catch (solo or with your favorite kiddo).
These small, simple steps offer big brain benefits without a huge time commitment.
This content is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Be sure to consult with your physician or other health care provider with questions about your fitness goals.
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