Like many of my patients you may exercise to keep your muscles strong and your weight under control. However, did you know that regular physical exercise also helps keep your brain in shape too? It’s true! Exercise helps keep your memory sharp, your cognitive/learning abilities intact and your mood stable well into old age. Here’s why.
EXERCISE AND YOUR BRAIN
You’ve likely noticed how good you feel after taking a walk, even a short one. Your muscles feel less tense, you feel more relaxed, and your mood feels much brighter. Ever wonder why that is? Well, when you do physical exercise, your brain releases lots of little communication nerve impulses called neurotransmitters that tell your body to release chemicals called endorphins, which are, essentially, “feel good” agents.
Endorphins help produce dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine which not only help relieve pain in your muscles and joints but also in your psyche, such as depression and low mood. Engaging in even mild exercise frequently helps keep your moods stable and helps alleviate depression and anxiety, especially in older patients whose serotonin and norepinephrine levels start to fall with age.
Secondly, physical exercise actually creates new brain neurons, or nerve cells, in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. At the young age of 30, we start to lose nerve tissue connections mainly because they’re not being used as much! Regular exercise strengthens those nerve connections and builds a denser network.
The result is your brain processes information faster and better, at any age. In fact, my over 60 patients who exercise regularly, frequently tell me that they remember things they’ve read or heard better and don’t misplace their keys, etc, as frequently.
In contrast, if they miss 2 consecutive days of their physical, aerobic exercise, they notice a significant decrease in their mood, start feeling “brain fog” and become more forgetful again. Those patients that exercise everyday boast a stable, brighter mood, quicker mental processes, less pain in joints and muscles, sleep better, have a sharper memory, and cope with everyday stressors in their life more easily.
STAY YOUTHFUL AND HAPPY – EXERCISE!
Now that you know why exercise is so great for your brain, and how it can contribute to staying youthful with a brighter outlook, let me explain to you what kind of exercise you should do to get the best brain/body benefits.
- Outdoor Bicycling – A good aerobic exercise that helps your balance and is easy on joints. However, in order to get its full aerobic brain/body benefits, you need to work a little harder than just leisurely sightseeing bicycling. Take your bike out on a designated bike path, or open blacktop roads in a park, and pick up the speed and intensity by turning up the gears on your bike as your tolerance allows. At least 30 minutes.
- Indoor cycling – a stationary bike is also an excellent way to get aerobic exercise in any weather. It also allows you to do interval training more safely than an outdoor bike. At least 30 minutes.
- Jog/Running – Always a good aerobic exercise, however, if you have painful knee joints, switch to bicycling, swimming, or an elliptical machine. If you do run, run on softer ground like blacktop. Be sure to invest in some good supportive running shoes. Start slow and work up tolerance – at least 30 minutes. *See interval training below.
- Elliptical machine – These machines are often found in public gyms and you can buy your own for home use. They exercise your entire body in the same physical motions, basically, as running, but without the impact of your weight stressing your joints. At least 30 minutes, build up tolerance as the coordination between arm and leg movements may take a bit of getting used to.
- Swimming – The weightlessness of water takes the impact off joints and allows you to move stress-free. Try to swim several laps the length of the pool and build up in number, for at least 20 minutes continuous swimming. Also, jogging in waist to chest high water gives a good aerobic workout without the stress on your knee and hip joints.
- Dance/Fitness Routines – Learning new coordinated movements like those taught in Zumba, yoga or other fitness classes, give your brain the best workout while also working your body. The new moves, while maintaining balance, stimulate brain cells to grow.
- Interval training: Short bursts of fast, intense movement in any of the above modes of exercise, followed by longer periods of slower exercise, can provide the best aerobic, muscle training, brain boosting exercise.
- Walking/golfing – If you want to use walking as your exercise of choice, it has to be faster and more purposeful than strolling. Keep up a brisk pace to get the proper level of aerobic exercise.
- Rebounding – Various coordinated jumping moves on a personal mini-trampoline are excellent for both building strong muscles and brain cells. Various rebounder exercises can be found on the internet. Turn on some music and jump away!
Doing aerobic, or interval-based aerobic exercise at least 3 times a week can really help your brain function by alleviating stress and depression while stimulating learning. As I encourage my patients, regular exercise is one of the important keys to staying youthful and vibrant well into old age. Exercise provides our brain and body with what it craves most – movement and stimulation and is something we benefit from no matter how old we are!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.