With the start of 2017, chances are you’ve made some New Year’s Resolutions. If you did, we are willing to bet that living a healthier lifestyle – things like losing weight, exercising more, or eating out less often – made it on your list.
We all know that exercise is good for the body and the brain. It’s no surprise that adopting a healthy lifestyle was ranked #1 for last year’s New Year Resolutions1! But for the days when you would rather watch Friends re-runs than break a sweat, here is some new motivation: physical activity can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years2.
More and more studies are showing that movement is medicine for the mind. So when you opt to bike to work rather than drive, you are strengthening both your body and your brain. Check out these 3 ways that your mental muscles can benefit every time you get your body moving.
- Boost your memory. One part of the brain that responds particularly strongly to exercise is the hippocampus. Research studies involving children, adults, and the elderly show that as people get more in shape, the hippocampus grows. This is great news, because the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems. In fact, older adults who did regular exercise performed four times better on cognitive tests than adults who didn’t work out3.
- Improve your focus. The best evidence that exercise enhances focus and helps you stay on task comes from studying school children. In one large research study, a daily after-school sports class helped school children get fitter and, surprisingly, it helped improve their executive control. The kids were better at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and maintaining concentration4. Are you eager to score these benefits but worried a daily soccer game isn’t your cup of tea? Fear not. Researchers have also shown that just 10 minutes of playful coordination skills – like bouncing two balls at the same time – can improve attention5.
- Slow cognitive decline. Staying physically fit helps keep your brain healthy. And, these cognitive benefits can come from many types of exercise. A brisk 30-45 minute walk, three times a week, can help delay the onset of dementia6. Exercise that improves balance, coordination, or agility can increase brain size enhance cognitive ability7. Weightlifting can have a visible neurological impact8. One research study even showed that a single hour of dancing per week for 6 months bolstered the cognitive wellbeing of elderly participants9. The critical factors that make exercise such an effective tool for maintaining brain health are still being teased out. Scientists think that increased blood flow to the brain, surges of growth hormones, a more robust network of blood vessels, or even the birth of new neurons could be key factors.
So what should you do? Start exercising!
Scientists think that any form of aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping can yield these mental benefits. Walking, jogging, swimming, tennis, squash, dancing… it’s all about finding an activity you enjoy and then getting up and doing it. You’ll be off and on your way to achieving that New Year’s Resolution, and your brain will thank you for it!
1 University of Scranton. J CLin Psych http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/
2 Willey, JZ, et al. 2016. Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline: The Northern Manhattan Study. Neurology 86(20):1897-1903.
3 Bherer l, Erickson KI, Liu-Ambrose T. 2013. A review of the effects of physical activity and exercise on cognitive and brain functions in older adults. J Aging Res. 2013: 657508.
4 Hillman CH, et al. 2014. Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function. Pediatrics. 134(4):e1063-71.
5 Budde H, et al. 2008. Acute coordinative exercise improves attentional performance in adolescents. Neurosci Lett. 441(2):219-23.
6 Erickson KI, Gildengers AG, Butters MA. 2013. Physical activity and brain plasticity in late adulthood. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 15(1):99-108.
7 Niemann C, Godde B, Staudinger UM, Voelcker-Rehage C. 2014. Exercise-induced changes in basal ganglia volume and cognitive in older adults. Neuroscience. 281:147-63.
8 Liu-Ambrose T, et al. 2012. Resistance training and functional plasticity of the aging brain: A 12-month randomized controlled trial. Neurobiol Aging. 33(8):1690-8.
9 Kattenstroth J, et al. 2013. Six months of dance intervention enhances postural, sensorimotor, and cognitive performance in elderly without affecting cardio-respiratory functions. Front Aging Neurosci. 5:5.
Morgan Ingemanson is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine studying neurobiology. She specializes in functional neuroimaging and has been investigating the use of robotic devices for rehabilitating motor function after stroke. She is interested in mapping CNS repair and developing therapeutic interventions for neurorecovery.