Exercise and Brain Health

By Amrita Sharma PhD, Neuropsychologist, July 22, 2020

Have you ever wondered about one magic activity that could reduce the brain fog that comes with age, prevent depression, stress, lowers blood pressure and lowers the odds of having heart problems, or simply makes you feel and look beautiful? Well there is definitely one such activity that covers it all: Exercise. 

 Exercise is the physical activity that  is planned, structured and repetitive intended to improve or maintain physical health. Generally in exercise you work up to sweat, with increased breathing rate and heart rate.

WHO recommends adults aged 18-64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity. Muscle-strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week. CDC and NHS recommends the same amount of exercise for people 65 and above if they are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions. In case if we are restrained by our health, we can at least try to be as physically active as our abilities or the health conditions allow.

Moderate intensity Exercise includes brisk walking, dancing, riding a bike, hiking. While hiking uphill, energetic dancing, jogging or running, swimming fast will race up our heart rate and will be termed vigorous intensity Exercise. Muscle strengthening is an important aspect in maintaining a healthy body and should not be ignored. CDC states that stronger muscles help reduce the risk of falling and improve the abilities to perform the daily tasks of life. Carrying heavy shopping bags, yoga, doing Exercises that use our own body weight like squats, and push-ups can help make our muscles strong.

So, what really happens to our body when we Exercise?

Recent research has suggested that the Exercise we do to improve our body also helps our brain.When we do high intensity Exercise our heart rate increases, supplying more blood flow to the brain. The increased heart rate also increases our breathing, making us breathe harder and faster. As a result more oxygen is supplied in our blood stream, more oxygen reaches our brain. This leads to neurogenesis, which is the production of neurons. Research has indicated that physical Exercise increases neurogenesis in the hippocampus, brain area important for learning and memory. Additionally, Exercise also influences the neurotrophins, it’s the family of protein that aids in neuron survival, development and function. This leads to greater brain plasticity and as a result better memory and learning. Regular physical activity lowers the risk of developing cognitive impairment, such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This improvement from the exercise is for people with normal and also impaired cognitive health, including people with ADHD, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke. 

Additionally, exercise also modulates the secretion of major neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin which are linked with treating depression. Indirectly, Exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Trouble in these aspects of our life frequently causes or contributes to cognitive impairment.

Despite all this knowledge we often find ourselves not doing the required amount of Exercise. I am sharing the following tips that may help to make Exercise a habit:

  • First and foremost is to choose a workout that you enjoy. You don’t have to go to the gym and sweat it out, it could be any place or form that you enjoy. You can dance, bike ride, swim. Doing something you enjoy will change your outlook towards Exercise. It will no longer be an activity on your to-do list that needs to be checked or pushed forward. It will rather become a highlight of your day that you will look forward to, in order to relax your mind and soul.
  • Keep diversity. No matter how much you enjoy your workout, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again you will lose interest. Keep trying different activities that you enjoy. Change the scenery instead of always going to the gym, go outdoors.
  • Set out a time for  Exercise. Most of the time we keep pushing the need to Exercise over something that we prioritize more. So setting a particular time and treating them as appointments will help.
  • Take baby steps. Usually when people start Exercising they go overboard on their first few days. It puts lots of stress on the body and makes you feel burned out. And hence it seems as an unpleasant activity which you don’t want to continue anymore. It’s much better to start with 15-20 minutes, taking it nice and slow and gradually increasing. Making the body adjust to it, so that it feels good and grows organically as your lifestyle.
  • Set out a plan for your workout. Don’t just go and do what everybody is doing. Focus on your own body and listen to it. You can focus on one muscle group at a time and if possible you could take the help of a trainer who will guide you on your fitness journey.
  • Having a workout buddy for moderate intensity exercise could be helpful and fun. This will make you accountable to each other and will help you stick to the routine.
  • Set up a Goal. Setting a goal keeps us motivated and encourages us to carry on. Setting clear goals and small ones will make you work towards them. For example, saying that you want to tone your body is a very abstract target to achieve. On the other hand, getting strong enough to lift a particular weight, or fit enough to run a marathon, are more specific and clear goals. It is also helpful to set a time by which you want to achieve them. This kind of goal setting will help you be accountable to yourself.
  • Go shopping!! Yes you heard me right. Getting clothes just for your workout will set your mindset to do your part. Also wearing something that makes you feel nice will set a positive attitude towards the activity that you are going to perform. The right set of clothes and shoes can also help in preventing injuries.
  • Focus on the frequency of workout and not about giving A+ performance. On those dull days when you think that you can not really do much are the days that you should definitely go and workout. Studies have shown that Exercise acts as a mood enhancer. So go for a small walk and reap the benefits of Exercise.

Enjoy your workouts. Move more, sit less, stay fit. Exercise will not only improve your brain and body but will make you one step closer to the person you want to be in life. It’s gonna upgrade the overall quality of life.

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“Physical Activity and Adults – WHO.” https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_adults/en/. Accessed 23 Jun. 2020.