brain health

Boost your Brain – why movement is medicine for your mind!

Our brain is central to everything we think, feel, and do. Most people know that exercise is good for our body, but many are unaware of the powerful impact exercise has on the health of our brain. Exercise can increase blood flow to the brain, make our brain cells more active, strengthen connections between different brain areas and even make areas of the brain bigger, all of which can improve how well it works and protect it from disease.

FOUR WAYS EXERCISE CAN BOOST YOUR BRAIN

1. Improves cognition (thinking skills)

Just like our heart and lungs, our brain is an organ and exercise can improve its performance. While our brain is responsible for many things, one set of skills that can be powerfully improved by exercise is our cognition, or thinking skills. These are the mental processes our brain performs so we can learn, understand, and interact with the world. This includes things like our ability to focus, remember, plan, and problem solve.

Research shows that just 10-20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (like a brisk walk around the block), can have an immediate positive effect on our ability to focus. Studies have also shown that people who exercise regularly have greater activation in the frontal lobe and perform better at the thinking tasks controlled by this region of the brain such as planning, problem solving, and decision making. Exercise can also have a powerful positive effect on our ability to control our behaviour, whether it be eating that block of chocolateendlessly scrolling online, or managing more problematic behaviours such as alcohol and substance use.

2. Improves memory

Another important thinking skill which can be improved by exercise is our ability to learn and remember. These skills are fundamental for success at work, study, and in everyday life. Exercise is thought to improve our memory through the powerful effect it has on the health of the hippocampus, a small brain area deep within the temporal lobes of the brain. Studies have shown that exercising at higher intensities (exercise that makes you huff and puff) can make the hippocampus bigger, the cells in the hippocampus healthier, and make the connections between the hippocampus and other areas of the brain stronger. Importantly these improvements in the health of the hippocampus have been linked with improvements in our ability to learn and remember.

3. Reduces your risk of brain disease (including dementia and stroke)

In Australia, the impact of poor brain health is becoming increasingly important, particularly with our aging population. As brain-related disorders are more common in older adulthood, the number of people living with significant disability and reduced quality of life is increasing rapidly. Over 70,000 Australians are diagnosed with brain-related disorders every year. This includes conditions like stroke and various types of dementia such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Exercise can directly reduce many of the risk factors associate with these conditions including obesity and high blood pressure. Studies have shown that living a physically active lifestyle can reduce the risk of developing dementia and stroke by between about 20-30%.

4. Can help manage symptoms in those with brain disorders

In addition to reducing the risk of developing brain-related disorders, exercise can be used as a tool to help manage symptoms. Following a stroke, exercise can significantly reduce the risk of having another stroke and improve physical functioning and quality of life. Exercise has been shown to slow the progression of various forms of dementia including Alzheimer’s Disease and can also improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, which often co-occur with these conditions. The type of exercise most suited to managing the symptoms of brain-related disorders depends heavily on the condition, symptoms experienced, stage or severity of the disease, and any other health conditions a person may be experiencing, so it is important to speak to an exercise professional (such as an Accredited Exercise Physiologist) before using exercise as a tool to manage symptoms.

WHAT EXERCISE IS BEST FOR BRAIN HEALTH

single bout of exercise can have an immediate positive effect on our brain, but exercising over weeks, month, and years, has an accumulative effect where the changes in our brain health become more permanent. While any exercise is better than no exercise, not all types of exercise have the same effect on brain health. A rapidly growing body of evidence has shown that it’s important to consider how often we exercise, as well as the type and intensity of the exercise we do. More moderate intensity exercise like a brisk walk, slow jog or leisurely cycle, can have an immediate positive effect on our thinking skills. Exercising regularly at more vigorous intensities (anything that makes you huff and puff to the point where it becomes slightly difficult to have a conversation) and doing weight bearing strength exercises can trigger biological changes that improve the health of our brain and the size of certain areas of the brain. But timing is important too because very intense exercise, that wears us out, can make it harder to think in the short term.

Remember that doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, a session a week is great, and then you can gradually build up to the recommended amount.

For adults, this means:

  • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week
  • Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week
  • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week

Something is always better than nothing!

HOW TO GET STARTED

If you’re new to exercise, it can be overwhelming and hard to know where to start. That’s especially true if you’re living with an injury or a health condition.

Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs) are university-qualified health professionals who specialise in prescribing exercise for those with injuries, chronic pain, mental health issues, chronic conditions, or brain conditions like dementia.

They are also trained in behaviour change and can help you create healthy habits and make long-term lifestyle change.

To find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist near you, click here.

Written by the team of experts at BrainPark.

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