Exercises benefit the brain
by: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
We’ve all heard about calisthenics for the body. Regular exercise helps your body stay fit. Now, research is showing that the same can be said for the mind.
Brain plasticity is a term that refers to the brains ability to change and adapt based on experience. Experts used to believe that our brains lost plasticity as we aged. Current research has shown this isn’t true and the brain can maintain its plasticity throughout adulthood. Further, research indicates this plasticity is enhanced through exercise.
Exercises benefiting your brain fall into two main categories. The first are the physical movements typically associated with exercise. Physical exercise increases the flow of oxygen to the brain. In addition, a study done at the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California found that physical exercise has a number of positive effects on the brain that help to maintain brain function and promote brain plasticity. Walking, running, swimming, biking or playing a sport are all good ways to get physical exercise and benefit brain plasticity.
The second category of “exercise” involves activities for the brain. Basically, you want to find ways to stimulate and challenge your thinking.
Engaging in an activity that teaches you something new is one good way to boost plasticity. This can be learning a new language, a new hobby – such as knitting, how to play a musical instrument or a new card game. Take an adult education class to stimulate brain activity (and learn something new).
Use your non-dominant hand to perform a daily task, such as brushing your teeth, writing a note or combing your hair. As your muscles are adapting to the new task, your brain is adapting as well.
Borrow a video game from your kids or grandkids. The games are fast-paced and keep your mind moving. In addition, many of these games automatically adjust the difficulty level to keep you challenged. There are also various computer software programs designed to boost brain plasticity. Examples are Brain Fitness, Mindfit and Lumosity.
Play any type of game – a board game, checkers, chess or cards work well. Crossword puzzles, word games, reading, writing and surfing the Internet also stimulate brain activity.
Simple memory exercises that require use of your short-term memory can be beneficial. You can try memorizing a series of four numbers. When you’ve got that mastered, increase to five numbers, and so on.
Human beings are social creatures and cultivating social relationships can provide exercise for the brain. A simple conversation isn’t so simple when you consider the amount of brain activity required. If you live alone or are isolated, make an attempt to get out and interact with others. Join a club, volunteer or reach out to a friend over the phone.
How do thinking exercises for the brain boost plasticity? The active thinking required to complete these exercises stimulate the brain, which may support new nerve cell growth and trigger communication between nerve cells, increasing synapse activity in the brain. While researchers aren’t ready to say brain exercises can delay or prevent dementia, a number of studies indicate there are numerous benefits to staying mentally active.
While exercise – both physical and mental – are thought to benefit the brain, you want to pair exercise with healthy lifestyle choices. Getting enough sleep is critical to brain function. When you are sleep-deprived your brain can’t operate at full capacity.
A healthy diet is another key factor to overall health – and brain health specifically. Watch your calorie intake and limit saturated fats. While you’re decreasing consumption of red meat, butter and ice cream, increase intake of fruits and vegetables. When it comes to fruits and veggies, remember the rainbow. Try to eat a variety of colors. Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for brain health. You can get them from eating cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, sardines and herring. If you aren’t a fan of fish, you might want to consider an omega-3 (fish oil) supplement. Drink plenty of water. It is a natural detoxifier for the body and brain. Consider sipping green tea. It contains antioxidants that protect against free radials that can damage brain cells. If you have questions about your diet and how it can enhance your brain health, talk about your concerns with your primary care physician.
When it comes to the brain, the old adage of, “Use it or lose it,” seems to be proving true through current and ongoing research. While we still don’t know exactly how the brain maintains capacity and plasticity we do have information from numerous sources that shows exercise – both physical and mental – have positive effects in that regard.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.