As you already know, physical activity is good for your body. What you may not be aware of is that science now suggests it’s equally good for your mind. And that’s especially true for aerobic exercise. Turns out, cardio not only helps your heart, it might also help you improve your decision-making skills and your memory.
Research shows a strong association between cardio and mental ability… which all the more reason to get cracking on a new workout regimen.
Cardio Can Strengthen Your Brain?
Canadian researchers made an interesting discovery recently. Their study found regular cardio exercise could increase the size of the hippocampus — the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory. While resistance training and other types of exercises had little effect on the size of study participant’s hippocampus, aerobic exercise did.1
Why is this so important?
Because shrinkage of the hippocampus is a common characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s results in a gradual loss of brain tissue. This not only leads to changes in personality and language, but to memory as well. The hippocampus is particularly vital to short-term memory.2 So, people with the disease eventually lose their ability to live independently altogether.
The Exercise/Brain Health Correlation
When you exercise, your body releases brain chemicals known as growth factors. These help produce new blood vessels in the brain which, in turn, increase blood flow and help new brain cells grow and survive. Plus, aerobic exercise has an indirect relationship to brain health as well. You see, it helps to reduce anxiety and stress. and may also help improve your quality of sleep and your overall mood.3
Improved Cognitive Function
Another study linked cardiovascular exercise with an improvement in cognitive function in adults. The subjects saw a large increase in brain tissue, as well as improved cognitive skills such as attentiveness and an improved ability to multi-task.
Subjects also showed improvement in being able to process information quicker.
One group engaged in cardio, like elliptical training or treadmill walking. They did this for four days a week for six months. The other study group only performed stretching exercises. Researchers then analyzed MRI results of the participants and found that both groups showed an increase in size of the temporal lobe — the area associated with short-term memory. However, the group performing aerobic exercises also showed improvement in cognitive function.4
The results of this study were striking in that large improvements took place in a short amount of time. Also, the results suggest that aerobic exercise shows promise in combating changes to the brain caused by cognitive disorders.
Keeping Brain Cells Healthy and Strong
Cardio may help stimulate the growth of new neurons in the brain. How? By producing a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor.5
Researchers have only recently started looking into the importance of the protein. They know it plays a vital role in helping prevent the death of brain cells, and they know it can help promote proper cognitive function. Plus, reduced levels of this protein are linked to other problems, such as obesity and depression.6
A Japanese study showed a correlation between increased exercise and a reduced risk for memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
Some of the participants had a parent with Alzheimer’s disease while others possessed a gene associated with the condition. And some participants had both. The study participants who spent at least 68 minutes exercising metabolized glucose better than those who didn’t exercise — which is a strong sign of a healthy brain.7
How Much Aerobic Exercise Do You Need?
There is no “one size fits all” answer for how much aerobic exercise you need in order to see improvements in your brain. Participants in the Canadian study went on a brisk walk two times a week, for one hour at a time. But recommendations vary as far as how much exercise is necessary for brain health. Some experts say 120 minutes a week, while others believe 150 minutes is the proper amount.8
How to Begin?
If the prospect of working out 30 minutes a day, five days a week seems daunting, you’re not alone. The key to starting any kind of aerobic exercise program is to start slow, and then work your way up. And never start any exercise routine without checking with your doctor first. After all, you want to do this safely.
There are several types of aerobic exercises. So, take some time to choosing the type of exercise program you want to start.
Here are a few to consider:
- Riding a bicycle or stationary bike
- Using a stair climber or treadmill
Walking, of course, is the easiest. You don’t need any equipment, other than a high-quality pair of shoes, and you can basically do it anywhere.
Cycling is great for people suffering from arthritis or anything else that makes it difficult to walk. It’s also excellent for people who are more than 50 pounds overweight.9 Why? Because cycling is an effective cardio workout that doesn’t put stress on your hips, ankles, back, or knees. The only downside is that if you prefer riding outside, the weather may limit you from time to time.
Train Your Brain
Ready to get that blood flowing? It seems aerobic exercise is one of the best overall types of physical activity you can do for both your mind and body. Once you talk to your doctor and then jump into a new regimen, it shouldn’t take long before you see the physical and mental benefits I’ve promised.