Whether you want to lose weight, build muscle strength, or tone your shape, you typically go about it with exercise.
After all, it’s proven that engaging in certain kinds of physical activities can change the way your body looks and works.
There is growing evidence that the same principle applies to your brain.
The mechanisms are not fully understood. However, physical activity releases endorphins and nerve growth factors.
These are biochemicals that may have far-reaching effects on the brain environment, possibly even spurring neurogenesis, according to Theodore R. Brown, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with EvergreenHealth.
Neurogenesis – the process of generating new neurons – is essential in the brain development in early life. It continues throughout life and may have a role in preserving cognitive ability.
In addition to creating new neurons, exercise may help preserve existing nerve cells that are under stress, slowing the rate of brain shrinkage and loss of important cognitive functions, like memory and attention. Dr. Brown says.
Physical exercise and fitness may also decrease the risk of certain diseases associated with declining mental function.
“There have been multiple studies showing a direct correlation between exercise and a person’s risk for certain diseases with cognitive decline or memory impairments,” he explains.
For example, according to Dr. Brown:
“We don’t know if exercise is the key factor or whether people who exercise also do something else at higher rates that is the real mechanism,” he explains. “At any rate, it seems clear that exercise is good for your mind, as well as your body.”
The type of physical activity you do to improve your mental capacity isn’t as important as your decision to simply get moving.
In fact, Dr. Brown believes the best exercise regimen is one that combines various types of physical training.
“When you use cross training and involve multiple elements, your brain gets a better workout,” he says.
He recommends pairing activities like strength training and walking, yoga and the treadmill, or swimming and pickleball (racquet sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis) — or any other combination of physical activity that’s interesting, challenging, and, most importantly, fun.
You can also tone your brain with mental exercises. Before you begin any mental calisthenics, Dr. Brown recommends prioritizing the mental function you feel needs the most improvement. Then find an activity related to that function.
There are four key areas of mental function:
Below are some ideas to sharpen your mental skills in each of these areas:
To stay healthy, it’s clear that exercising for mental and physical fitness should be part of every adult’s wellness plan.
Although the exercise you choose may change with age, one thing is certain: we can never quit and expect to remain healthy.
Visit our Healthiest Best Exercise homepage for more great ideas to work activity into your daily routine.