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What's Good For the Brain

January 2009
What's Good For the Brain

As you make your New Year’s resolutions and sign up for that gym membership, remember that consistent aerobic and strength training exercises are not only good for weight loss and disease prevention, but also for your mental well-being!

Much has been said about the benefits of exercise when it comes to disease prevention and physical fitness—but did you know that the benefits of exercise go not only below the neck but above it as well? Recent studies show that regular exercise has an impact on improving memory, alleviating depression, improving mood, improving focus and decision making, delaying the aging process of the brain, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and promoting overall happiness!

How can exercise do all this?

During exercise, more blood is circulated to the brain, thus supplying more fuel for the brain, such as glucose. A good supply of nutrients also slows the loss of brain tissue or “gray matter” that begins in the forties. It even promotes neurogenesis (production of new nerve cells) which improves learning. Certain chemicals in the brain called norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine are also increased during exercise, thus boosting mood and improving concentration, focus and attention.

How much and what types of exercise do you need for healthy brain aging?

Studies show that to promote and maintain health, even older adults need moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes five days each week or vigorous intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes three days each week. (Moderate intensity is when you feel "warm and slightly out of breath," and vigorous is when you feel "out of breath and sweaty.") For example, any aerobic activity involving your major muscles, such as brisk walking, biking, rowing, jogging, or using the elliptical machine, could be done for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. If you do a little more, you could break it into two sets—for example, swimming for 20 minutes in the morning, then walking at night. Consider daily tasks such as household chores, gardening and vacuuming as not part of your exercise program but more recreational and an addition to your exercise program.

Always include warm-ups and cool-downs for safety, gentle stretching and flexibility exercises, and throw in some balance exercises (maybe some dancing!) for fun and to reduce risk of injury from falls. Meditation can also be a great complement to exercise. Remember that it is important to find activities that you enjoy.

Experts also believe that strength training is just as essential for the brain as aerobic training. Strength training is the only way to prevent the loss of muscle mass that comes with aging. As we age, we lose more than half a pound of muscle every year after the age of twenty-five. In our sixties and seventies this loss of muscle can have a profound impact on our mental well-being, as it makes daily activities such as climbing steps, getting out of bed, and getting off the sofa more challenging. The inability to accomplish these tasks often brings on feelings of hopelessness, especially in older adults. Strength training maintains and improves muscle mass and overall strength, and therefore makes us feel strong and more in control of our bodies. Those who do strength training regularly are healthier and less likely to experience depression, since confidence and self esteem improves. A minimum of 30 to 40 minutes of strength training exercises that involve all major muscles of the body, 2 to 3 days a week is ideal.

So this year, as you enthusiastically make your New Year’s resolutions and sign up for that gym membership, remember that consistent aerobic and strength training exercises are not only good for weight loss and disease prevention, but also good for your mental well-being and your brain!

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