You’re a smart cookie when it comes to your health, so you know that regular exercise is one of the best ways to cut your risk of disease, boost your immune system, and maintain a trim body. But flat abs, bigger biceps, and fewer colds are just the beginning. Mounting research suggests that regular sweat sessions can help keep your brain fit, too.
Science shows us that aerobic activity can improve mental processes such as planning, multitasking, focusing without getting distracted, and making and remembering associations (e.g., banking away the name and face of a new acquaintance or remembering where you left your keys), says Michelle Voss, PhD, a researcher in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“So far, there is the most support for light aerobic exercise, like walking three times a week for 45 minutes to an hour,” says Voss, adding that according to research, resistance training two times a week also may enhance brain function.
Voss and her colleagues recently examined 111 human and animal studies on the long-term cognitive benefits of cardio and strength-training workouts. In their review article, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the researchers conclude that exercise helps us maintain brain and cognitive health throughout life. Animal studies suggest that aerobic exercise increases levels of brain chemicals that protect nerve cells from damage as well as boost the function of mitochondria — the source of energy within cells — giving your noggin more power to create energy to fuel brain activity, says Voss.
The researchers note that more studies are needed in order to understand how specific aspects of exercise influence brain physiology and function in humans.
Discover eight tangible brain-boosting perks you can reap from regular exercise.
Be more productive at work
If your mind is wandering to anything but the task in front of you, leaving your workplace for a workout may be just the mental break your mind needs. An International Journal of Workplace Health Management study concluded that engaging in midday exercise boosts overall job performance by 15 percent. Researchers asked 210 employees who worked at a university, life insurance firm, or computer company to complete questionnaires about their job performance and mood on the days they exercised and on the days they did not. Study participants did anything from taking a yoga class to playing a game of pickup basketball for 30 to 60 minutes.
Of those participants, 72 percent reported being able to better manage their time on exercise days compared with nonexercise days. After exercise, questionnaire scores were 21 percent higher for concentration, 25 percent higher for finishing work without breaks, and 22 percent higher for ability to meet deadlines.
Stay focused in school
Similar findings are evidenced in elementary schools. A University of Illinois study published in the journal Neuroscience suggests that physical education classes, recess, and after-school sports improve students’ abilities to pay attention. In one experiment, 20 nine-year-old students took a flanker test, which assesses the ability to focus on a single object among a host of visual distractions following 20 minutes of rest. On another day, students took the same test after 20 minutes of walking on a treadmill. The students performed better on the test after walking, suggesting that physical activity improved the kids’ ability to “allocate attentional resources,” meaning that after exercise, they could better tune out visual “noise” and zero in on a central object.
Control ADHD without drugs
Research even suggests that exercise may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a cognitive disorder classified by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Physical activity has been shown to boost levels of dopamine, a brain chemical that affects learning and attention and one that is in short supply in individuals with ADHD. To test this, Korean researchers followed the effects of 30 minutes of treadmill walking on hyperactive mice. Their results, published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, showed that rodents who ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week for 28 days were less hyperactive and had higher levels of tyrosine hydroxylase, an enzyme needed to make dopamine.
Improve academic performance
Under pressure to meet strict academic guidelines, many schools have been forced to cut time spent in physical education classes and at recess. At the same time, schools are being urged to help reduce rising childhood obesity in part by increasing opportunities for physical activity. The good news for educators looking for a happy middle ground: Studies suggest that bouts of exercise throughout the day may be just what kids need to succeed.
In a CDC research review of 50 studies that examined the effects of school-based physical activity on academic performance, half of the studies showed that being active had a positive effect on achievement, while half demonstrated no effect, and virtually no studies revealed a negative effect. Most striking, the review revealed that recess, physical education classes, after-school sports, and 5- to 10-minute physical activity breaks in the classroom improved students’ concentration and helped them achieve higher scores on standardized tests.
Why? Exercise aids nonautomatic processes in the brain. “What seems to be the most consistently affected is executive functions — or those cognitive areas that regulate higher-level cognition — attention, working memory, task coordination, planning and so on,” says Kirk Erickson, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Learn faster and remember more
If new names and faces never seem to stick, you might try beefing up your hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for consolidating information from your short-term to long-term memory. In a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, 120 older adults were assigned to one of two exercise programs, either walking around a track for 40 minutes a day, three times a week, or performing stretching and toning exercises at the same frequency. After a year, walkers demonstrated 2.12 percent growth in the right hippocampus and 1.97 percent growth in the left, while the same brain regions in those who stretched decreased in volume by 1.40 percent and 1.43 percent, respectively.
Aerobic exercisers also demonstrated improvement on memory tests as well as higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein in the hippocampus that aids learning, memory, and higher thinking. To ramp up levels of BDNF, increase your exercise intensity. According to a Neurobiology of Learning and Memory study, people learned vocabulary words 20 percent faster and had bigger spikes in their levels of BDNF and dopamine after intense exercise compared with after low-intensity physical activity.
Protect your brain cells and stay sharp late in life
Certain cognitive skills — your ability to make rapid comparisons, for example — get a little rusty later in life, and some studies suggest that this process can begin as early as the late 20s in healthy adults. “The human brain is always creating new brain cells, but this process slows down with age,” says Voss. “However, with aerobic exercise the rate of the birth of new brain cells can be maintained into old age,” she says.
In a 6-month Journal of Gerontology study 59 healthy but sedentary adults ages 60 to 79 exercised for 1 hour 3 times a week, performing either an aerobic workout or a series of toning and stretching exercises. Study participants in the cardio group demonstrated growth in their brains’ gray and white matter, areas of the brain that are often reported to show substantial age-related deterioration.
Improve blood flow to stay alert
Animal studies suggest that aerobic training also results in the generation of new blood vessels, which has been linked to improved learning and memory. “Aerobic exercise makes it easier for blood vessels in the brain to regenerate after damage and to grow. This means aerobic exercise increases the health and number of blood vessels in the brain, which has been linked to better brain function in both animals and humans,” says Voss.
Ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Not only can regular workouts help ward off routine signs of aging, but also protect against more serious losses of cognitive ability, like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, a research review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings examined 130 studies on exercise and late-in-life cognitive decline and linked aerobic activity to lower incidences of dementia.
Squeezing in 30 minutes of cardio three or more times a week can lower dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent, according to a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers followed 1,740 adults ages 65 and older who showed no signs of dementia and evaluated the participants’ health every 2 years. At the conclusion of the 6-year study, 1,185 participants were found to be dementia-free, 77 percent of whom reported exercising at least three times a week.
In a study of 4,615 Canadian adults ages 65 and older, University of Ottawa researchers found a link between regular physical activity (as well as coffee and wine consumption) and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia that worsens over time. A possible explanation: The neurochemicals generated by exercise help the brain form new neurons in the hippocampus, one of the most negatively affected regions in Alzheimer’s disease, says Voss.
While most research that links exercise to increased brainpower favors cardio over strength-training, a new study published in Neurobiology of Aging revealed that resistance training changes how well older women think and how blood flows within their brains. University of British Columbia researchers found that after women lifted weights twice a week for 12 months, they performed better on tests that gauged mental processing than women who completed a 1-year balance and toning program. Brain scans revealed more activity in the parts of the brain that control executive functions.