Health & Wellness Articles

Exercises to Boost Your Brain Power

Strengthen Your Mind with These Healthy Habits

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When you work out, a few things probably run through your mind: changing your body composition, burning calories, building more muscle and strengthening your cardiovascular system. But did you know that there is one body part that most of us neglect to think about in terms of exercise? This specific organ helps you do, well, everything! What is it?

Your brain.

Researchers have much more to learn about the brain, but over the last decade scientists have learned quite a bit about the effects of exercise on the brain—both physical and intellectual. It turns out that by exercising regularly and "training your brain," you can boost your brain power just like physical activity can strengthen your muscles.

The Link Between Working Out and Brain Power
One study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that regular sweat sessions can increase the size of a region of the brain called the hippocampus—a part of the brain that begins to decline around age 30 in most adults. The hippocampus is tucked deep in the brain and plays an important role in learning and memory. According to researchers, a larger hippocampus is associated with better performance on spatial reasoning and other cognitive tasks.

Another study in Neurology showed that exercise may help slow brain shrinkage in people with early Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, adults diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s who were less physically fit had four times more brain shrinkage than normal older adults. A study from 2010 in the journal, Brain Research found an association between physical fitness and children's brain power, too. In the study, researchers found that, on average, fit 9- and 10-year-old children had larger hippocampi and performed better on memory tests than their more sedentary peers.

How Exercise Helps the Brain
Here are a few more ways that exercise boosts brain power, according to AARP.
  • It improves concentration and attention. When you're fit, you have faster reaction times and can better focus on relevant information.

  • It promotes neurogenesis. Although it hasn't been proven in humans, animals that are given the opportunity to run on exercise wheels have shown increases in the creation and survival of new brain cells in the hippocampus.

  • It may improve memory. In animals, running also increases the strength of synaptic connections, thereby improving long-term memory.

  • It reduces gray-matter loss. Fit people show less of a decrease in gray matter than is normally seen with aging.

  • It changes gene patterns. Exercise changes the expression patterns of a wide array of genes, with some becoming more active and some showing less activity. Many of the genes that become more active are known to play roles in the structure and adaptability of synapses, suggesting a direct role for exercise in synapse density.

  • It enhances blood flow. Exercise also increases the density and size of brain capillaries, which increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This may in turn help support the survival of new neurons and help your neurons fire more quickly.
The Research on "Brain Exercise"
It may seem weird, but you really can develop a plan to exercise your brain, similar to the way lifting weights increases your muscle strength. Instead of weight-training though, you train your brain to improve its attention and focus through a variety of mind exercises. Over time this allows you to better block out distractions and improve concentration.

In fact, researchers at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that "attention training," such as regularly doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, can help keep older adults' minds young. The Brain Fitness in Older Adults (B-fit) study used brain scans to visualize blood flow and brain activity to determine how this type of training affects brain function. In the study, the training involved either a structured one-on-one mental workout program or a group brain exercise program. In the one-on-one sessions, subjects were asked to ignore distracting information as tasks got harder during the eight-week training. For the group sessions, participants learned new information relevant to healthy aging and were tested on their ability to apply the new information. Follow-up brain scans showed that in the group receiving the one-on-one training, activity related to sight was increased, while activity related to sound was decreased. In addition, performance on the task was improved. Basically, the one-on-one training allowed the older adults to better focus. Just like the old saying says, "Practice makes perfect!"

Your Brain-Building Plan
So, just how do you use this information to reap your own brain-boosting benefits? Try these great ideas to start exercising your own brain.
SparkPeople TriviaOmega-3 fatty acidsyogameditation
    1. Read something new every day. Challenge your brain by reading an article (like this one!) on something you aren't familiar with, or try reading a different type of literature like a poem or Shakespeare.

    2. Get trivial. Once a week, get together with your friends and play Trivial Pursuit or another trivia-based game. Remembering historical facts or pop culture tidbits can help work that brain of yours in new ways! You can even try each day!

    3. Eat brain-feeding foods. Nosh regularly on foods that are high in healthy fats, such as walnuts or salmon, both of which contain essential . Not only are they good for you, they're tasty too!

    4. Keep up with your workouts! In many of the brain research studies, those who were the most fit reaped the most brain benefits, so keep exercising regularly and challenging your body.

    5. De-stress regularly. Your brain can be negatively affected by stress, and studies performed at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital found that regular and practice can increase the size of the hippocampus.

    6. Hit the hay early and often. Studies have found that you need an average of eight hours of sleep a night for optimal brain function. It's also really good for your overall health and fitness—not to mention your mood!

    7. Play mind games. Whether it's a crossword puzzle, Soduku or Scrabble, engage your brain in some play most days of the week. And try to mix up your games. Just like building muscles, your brain will adapt as it grows stronger in one skill, so you have to keep challenging it in new ways.
Now that's some food for thought!

Sources:
Brain Builders, from ClubIndustry.com
Cardiorespiratory fitness and brain atrophy in early Alzheimer disease, from Neurology.com
Imaging correlates of brain function in monkeys and rats isolates a hippocampal subregion differentially vulnerable to aging, from PNAS.org
Improve Your Concentration with Brain Fitness Activities, from About.com
Strength Training for the Brain, from ClubIndustry.com
Three Pounds You Never Want to Lose, from PsychologyToday.com

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Member Comments

  • Anything to help keep healthy and the brain cells firing ,these articles are interesting thank you!
  • Great article! Thanks!
  • do new things to stay healthy and get better in body and mind. thanks for info
  • Thank you for the article. I think the word in #3 should be "nourish" not "nosh".
  • Thanks for the info, but some key words are missing in # 3 and 5 above.
  • That would be so nice to happen but I have a few friends that did crosswords, find a word, and several other exercises for the brain and they all suffer from Alzheimer's
  • Thank you for the information. I love these articles and this one particularly. My sweet Mom had Alzheimers as did my Grandmother. I have always been much more active than they were, but I'm also probably at high risk for the disease. I enjoy working out and love to add as much intensity to my workouts as possible. Of course, I would never assume that my fitness level would keep Alzheimers was developing, but what can it hurt to think that I am doing a bit to help my brain health? Exercise benefits the entire body and I intend on exercising for the rest of my life.
  • Words missing in article, important words. Please review.
  • My husband and I watch Jeopardy on TV almost every night, and we try to think of the right response ahead of each contestant. Some days we do well, and some days not so well, but it's always fun and a challenge.
  • THANKS FOR THE INFORMATIVE ARTICLE!
  • ADDIUMPILL
    I'm on day two of taking [url=http://www.a
    ddiumsuppleme
    nt.info/]Addi
    um[/url]. I have plenty of energy but I can't concentrate on one thing at a time. I have a huge test to take in a few days and I'm still very easily distracted by small things. I'll start to read for maybe 20 minutes then I start getting completely of track and start cleaning or something. The energy I get from the product is great and it seems to be good for doing continuous​ motions.
  • PWEST12345
    5. De-stress regularly. Your brain can be negatively affected by stress, and studies performed at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital found that regular and practice can increase the size of the hippocampus.

    Was the error in 5. created on purpose?
  • KELLYFIT123
    I particularly like step aerobics because of how it challenges my brain. I have to listen for the cues AND make my body move in complex patterns. I love it!

    I wish I enjoyed crossword puzzles and the like, but I really don't. Maybe I should try them again.
  • There are a couple of places where there seems to be a word missing.

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomeGirls.com, FitBottomedMamas.com and FitBottomedEats.com. A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.