There is one thing which we can all do, every day, to keep our brains sharp and our memories intact.
Neuroscientists know about it. The mice in their labs spend a lot of time doing this.
Have you guessed what these mice are doing?
Running. Exercising. Moving briskly and getting their heart rate up.
When they perform this activity, the mice grow new brain cells. The scientists study what happens in their brains. Their aim is to develop pharmaceutical treatments which will mimic this process. These treatments could help us to grow new brain cells – whatever our age. They could enable us to maintain our memory and possibly prevent or treat Alzheimer’s.
So… we could wait for these scientists to make a medical breakthrough which mimics the effect that exercise has on the brain (there’s no guarantee they will).
Or we could… hmmm… get moving and reap the benefits right now. No waiting for breakthroughs, drug trials, licensing or getting referred and prescribed. No unpleasant side effects.
If you are keen to keep your brain sharp, your memories intact and possibly reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, you will want to read on to find out how exercise boosts your brain function and what you can do today to grow new brain cells, just like those lab mice.
Miracle Gro for your brain
Exercise benefits your brain in so many ways, there are books which tell the whole story. I know you are busy, so I have picked out the best bits, just for you…
- Exercise prompts the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Neuroscientists call this ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain’. BNDF encourages the growth of new neurons, helps them to work better, protects them against damage and improves the signalling between neurons. If a pill could do this, it would be considered a wonder drug!
- Exercise strengthens your cardiovascular system. This helps oxygen and glucose to get to your brain faster and allows all your brain cells to function optimally. It also keeps your blood pressure down (which takes the strain off the blood vessels in the brain).
- Insulin resistance is a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. Now we know it’s also a key player in Alzheimer’s disease. Poor insulin resistance causes repeated spikes in blood glucose. These are damaging to a part of our brain called the hippocampus. Its primary function is related to memory and it is the first part of the brain to be damaged with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Exercise leads to many physiological responses in the brain which facilitate neuroplasticity (the ability of your brain to change and adapt throughout life). This helps to strengthen your brain and guard against neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
When you exercise you are also boosting your immune system, reducing stress and improving your sleep. These are all crucial elements for good brain health.
What you need to know about exercising for brain health
So, what can you do today, tomorrow and next week to grow new brain cells, like those lab mice?
The simple answer is to move more, more often and take any opportunity to be more active.
Specifically, aerobic exercise has been found to be the most beneficial in terms of improving cognitive function, increasing the size of the hippocampus and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Aerobic exercise is anything which gets your heart pumping and gets you slightly out of breath. It could be brisk walking (or jogging/ running, depending on your fitness level), swimming, cycling, dancing or taking part in any number of sports such as tennis or badminton.
The general recommendations (these are not specific to brain health) are to aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity, 5 days per week.
When you are doing moderate intensity exercise, your breathing rate will increase. You will be able to talk but not sing.
High intensity is when your breathing is fast and you have difficulty talking during the exercise.
What if you can’t keep going for 30 minutes or just don’t have that much time? That’s fine too, you still get the benefits if you break it up over the day – 10 or 15 minute bouts are easier to fit in and will be less challenging.
I would recommend finding a variety of aerobic activities which you enjoy. An example of this could be:
- Monday – brisk walk with a friend
- Tuesday – exercise class
- Thursday – swimming or aqua class
- Friday – evening Scottish country dancing
- Saturday – brisk walk (perhaps listening to an audiobook to make best use of the time)
Your body will benefit from the variety of movements and different challenges. You won’t get bored so easily, will be able to include other people and it will be easier to find activities that fit into your life.
Can you do this by yourself or do you need an instructor or trainer? You may want to speak to an exercise professional if you have any specific medical conditions or want to do higher intensity exercise.
A good exercise professional will help you to make sure you are exercising at the right level and will challenge you to push yourself. If you are in the gym, a trainer can assist you in programming the equipment and on safe technique. A class can be a great way to stay active and be social – you may want to read this article about choosing the best exercise class for you.
Otherwise, it’s just about moving more, more often.
There is also some evidence that people who do more complex activities, such as dancing, benefit from further improvements in brain function. This is likely because dancing (and some sports, martial arts etc) also involve lots of learning, novelty and engagement with others.
So just remember, that wonder brain-boosting drug – exercise – is already here for all of us to enjoy and benefit from. No nasty side effects, just a better memory and clearer, sharper brain.