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Exercise can strengthen the body, lower stress levels and ward off weight gain. However, a regular workout can also help to improve cognitive function and alter the way your brain works. Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that short bouts of exercise are among the non-pharmacological aids that are more effective than so-called smart drugs at boosting concentration and firing up cognitive powers.
It’s been proven that exercise can lower stress levels, ward off weight gain (obviously) and strengthen the body. Also, a regular workout can improve cognitive function and can alter the way your brain works. Research as found that short spurts of exercise is the most non-pharmacological way to boost concentration and fire up cognitive powers.
While all exercise appears to be beneficial for brain function, some activities have specific effects on memory, learning and emotional health. Here’s our guide to the best ways to workout for your brain’s needs.
Brain effects Boosts mental flexibility and memory
How it works Researchers at the University of Illinois asked adults aged 55 to 79 to attend either classes in hatha yoga — one of the most basic styles — or general stretching sessions three times a week for eight weeks and tested the response of their brains. By the end of the trial, those who had been practising yoga were faster and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than before and had significant improvements in memory, while the stretching group saw no improvements. According to the researchers, it is the mental focus required in yoga that brings benefits to the brain.
Brain effects Improves blood flow to the brain, boosting all-round cognitive ability
How it works Sport scientists at the University of Western Australia found that immersing the body in water increases blood flow through the brain’s cerebral arteries, boosting brain power. Asking male volunteers to stand in a tank while water was pumped in at a constant rate up to heart level, the team reported a 14 per cent blood-flow increase to the middle cerebral artery and a 9 per cent blood-flow increase to the posterior cerebral artery, which, combined, significantly enhance cognitive ability.
Brain effects Helps the brain to grow and regenerate
How it works High intensity training (HIT) might be one of the most popular workout styles at the moment, but it’s not as effective as running for increasing brain power. When Finnish scientists compared the neurological impacts of different types of exercise for a study published this year, they found that the rapid, strenuous approach of HIT (in this case three-minute sprints followed by two minutes jogging for a total of 15 minutes) failed to match the brain benefits of daily jogging at a slow pace.
“Aerobic exercise, such as running, has positive effects on brain structure and function, for example the generation of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain structure important in learning,” said Professor Heikki Kainulainen, the lead author of the study.
Brain effects Sharpens memory and has an anti-ageing effect on the brain
How it works University of Pittsburgh researchers recruited 120 men and women aged between 55 and 80 and asked them to take brisk 40-minute walks three times weekly. A year later scans revealed that regions of their brains, including the hippocampus, had grown by up to 2 per cent, reversing age-related loss by up to two years. This “enormous” improvement was not seen in the control group who performed regular stretching every week. Walking up stairs is another good exercise — the more flights of stairs a person climbs every day, the “younger” their brain is physically, according to Concordia University research published this year. In fact, brain age decreases 0.58 years for every year in which a participant climbed a flight of stairs every day — that’s the stairs between two levels of a shopping centre or office block.
Brain effects Wards off degenerative brain disease, improves muscle memory and spatial awareness
How it works Dancing — be it freestyle, salsa or disco — has profound and long-lasting effects on the brain and, done regularly, can dramatically reduce the risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Several researchers have found that regular dancing also helps to maintain a sharp mind, because it forces the brain regularly to rewire its neural pathways as you change direction and move to the beat. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that dance is particularly effective in helping long-term memory — especially when the learning of steps is involved — as well as spatial recognition. Another study in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that spinning in ballet decreases the sensation of dizziness in the brain over time.
Brain effects Slows age-related brain shrinkage
How it works A study conducted by Professor Teresa Liu-Ambrose, the director of the Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, tested the idea that light weightlifting and resistance work might prevent the shrinkage of the brain that occurs naturally in all of us from middle age. Women aged 65 to 75 were asked to perform either a weekly or twice-weekly supervised session of light weight training, while a control group participated in twice-weekly stretching and balance training. Brain scans taken before and after the year-long trial revealed that the control group had developed a worrying number of age-related holes or lesions in their brains, as had the once-a-week weight-trainers. However, those asked to stick to twice-weekly weights sessions not only showed significantly less shrinkage of brain matter, but their brain lesions had not multiplied at nearly the same rate. Resistance training at least twice a week clearly “has benefit for the brain”, Liu-Ambrose said.
Not only is it important to keep in shape and eat healthily, it’s also so important to keep your mind sharp. All this leads to a healthy, happy life. Now get training!