The best exercises for brain health as you age

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Exercise can help boost cognitive function and protect your brain against age-related memory loss.

Image Credit: Lane Oatey / Blue Jean Images / blue jean images / GettyImages

Having a regular exercise routine plays a big role in healthy aging, reducing your risk of developing diseases like diabetes and heart disease later in life.

But what you might not realize is that every time you lace up your running shoes or kick off your spin bike, you are also protecting your brain against age-related memory loss, including aging. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Exercise affects your brain just as much as it affects your body. And it shouldn’t be too complicated! Starting a simple aerobic training program can help improve memory, focus, organization, planning, and multitasking (i.e. your executive function) in older people at risk for decline cognitive, according to a January 2019 study inNeurology.

Read on to discover the eight best exercises for brain health and why training can be so great for your mind.

For once, screen time can be good for your health. Exergaming mixes digital video games with fitness for a fun new form of exercise. Virtual reality could improve cognitive health benefits of exercise in older adults by improving memory and concentration, according to a January 2019 study inClinical practice and epidemiology in mental health.

You may be familiar with the first generation of exergaming, including Wii Sports and Dance, Dance Revolution. But now a new breed of exercise games is on the rise. For example, Ring Fit Adventure takes virtual fitness to a new level (pun intended) with games specially designed to integrate exercise into video games.

2. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) isn’t just good for your physical health; they are also one of the best exercises for brain health.

In fact, HIIT is associated with greater brain function than steady-state cardio exercise in young adults, according to a small study from February 2020 inBrain science.Pushing yourself at a higher intensity can trigger a release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that contributes to brain health.

“I call BDNF MiracleGro for the brain,” says John Ratey, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and expert in neuropsychiatry. “It’s like a fertilizer that keeps our brain cells young and vibrant, protects us from stress, and helps our brains develop.”

When it comes to the best physical exercises for your brain, you can get more for your money when you exercise outdoors.

Spending time in nature can improve memory, attention and creativity, according to a July 2019 review inScientists progress.Being in nature is also associated with reduced symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, according to the review.

“Going outdoors maximizes the benefits of exercise on the brain,” says Dr. Ratey. Whether you are hiking, snowboarding or mountain biking, do it in the great outdoors.

It turns out that downward dogging can also help sharpen your mind, not just your balance. Getting your Om is associated with improved attention, processing speed (how long it takes to complete a mental task) and decision-making, according to a May 2021 review inComplementary therapies in medicine.

Bonus points if the course includes meditation: Studies show that people who practice meditation on a regular basis have more outer layers in their brains, which may increase their ability to process information, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Another great exercise for brain health is tai chi. A study from September 2019 inNaturesuggests that doing this low-intensity mind-body exercise can help improve memory and attention, making it a great physical exercise for brain health. Tai chi increases the concentration of oxygen in the blood in the brain, increases cognitive activity, and improves brain connectivity.

This could be because tai chi is a type of exercise called neuromotor training, which emphasizes balance, core strength, stability, and agility. “The better balanced you are, the better your brain works,” says Dr Ratey. “Doing some form of exercise that improves your balance helps you stay focused and regulate your emotions.”

It’s time to channel your inner Beyonce. A study from July 2017 inPLOS Ademonstrates that dance training has the potential to increase brain volume in older adults, even more than conventional aerobic training, such as walking and cycling. According to the study, dancing also improved neuroplasticity, which means that dancers’ brains are better able to develop and change in response to experiences.

This is because dancing promotes coordination, balance, endurance, interaction and communication. This allowed participants to tap into their brain’s learning processes.

So fire up your TikTok and get moving.

Whether you join a local volleyball league or an Ultimate Frisbee team, group activities have a dual cognitive impact: you get all the brain benefits of exercise, plus the added benefits of socializing.

Social activities are associated with greater working memory, processing speed, and greater decision-making skills in older adults, according to a December 2017 review inSystematic Reviews.

Team sports help increase your brain’s oxytocin, a hormone that helps you bond with others, according to Dr. Ratey. “I call the social bond ‘vitamin C’ because it’s the most important factor when it comes to healthy aging; it is three times more powerful than anything else in keeping us physically and mentally young. “

Team sports not your thing? Choose a partner sport like tennis, take a Zumba class, or join a running group.

Resistance training strengthens musclesandyour brain. Strength training can lead to brain changes associated with improved executive function, according to a July 2019 review in theEuropean Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

People with Alzheimer’s disease have lower levels of irisin (a brain hormone) than mentally healthy people, January 2019 study findsNatural medicine.This hormone is released when you exercise against resistance, says Ryan Glatt, CPT, certified personal trainer and brain health coach at the Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.

While any type of resistance training has a positive effect, free weights win the blue ribbon. The more force you use to lift weights, the more your body releases brain growth factors and hormones, says Glatt. Doing only bodyweight exercises may not have the same benefits.

Glatt points out that free weights are also a more powerful brain stimulant than weight machines because they require more attention. It’s easier to space out when you have a machine that supports your body.

Glatt recommends compound movements, which work multiple muscle groups in different directions and require a little more thinking and memory to perform. For example, doing a one-loop lunge at an overhead press is more complex than a simple bicep curl.

How training helps your brain

As you age, your noggin decreases a bit in size and function, according to Dr. Ratey. In response to reduced brain activity, the capillaries in your brain begin to shrink in size, restricting blood flow. This can cause your memory, reaction time, impulse control, and decision-making skills to decline.

But sweating is one of the best defenses against age-related mental decline, according to Glatt. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and helps speed up your brain activity. As a result, exercise can slow decline and improve executive function.

But that’s not all. It’s also helpful in preventing neurological and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, Glatt says.

But how much physical activity do you need to benefit your brain? Following the physical activity guidelines for Americans is a good place to start: Aim for 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise (like walking or hiking), says Glatt. This equates to a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Or go for 75 minutes of high intensity training.

If 30 minutes doesn’t seem achievable to you, remember that any activity is better than nothing. You can still get brain health benefits by getting some activity into your day, even if you don’t hit total time, Glatt says.


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