So, you are thinking of breaking with your unhealthy habits by committing yourself to a workout regime of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week? Although it has almost become a platitude to say that exercising is crucial for your health and well-being, sometimes people tend to focus on the benefits exercising has on their physical appearance as their main incentive to introduce it to their daily routine. This is, of course, not wrong in itself, but finding the necessary motivation to persevere in your decision might be easier if you consider all the ways physical exercise helps your brain work better.
What is sometimes understated in the conventional discourse about exercising is the fact that every step you take, every bike ride, trip to the swimming pool, or other physical activity, enhances your cognitive fitness alongside your physical fitness.
This is especially true when it comes to aerobic exercise. According to several large-scale studies, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise has a beneficial effect on cognitive functioning, thus significantly reducing the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Your brain benefits from moderate-intensity exercise in many ways.
Alt: a grayscale photo of a sculpture denoting centers in the brain
This is especially important if you are having a hard time turning off your work mode after your shift — experiencing work-related stress can be detrimental to your mental and physical health in ways that are hardly noticeable on a daily basis. Of course, there are other ways in which exercising makes a positive difference in the functioning of your brain. Let’s take a look.
What are the main ways in which physical exercise helps your brain work better?
Based on several longitudinal studies investigating the supposed benefits of exercise on overall health, people who engaged in physical activity tend to have a higher score on memory and general cognitive tests than those who exercise sporadically. Over time, even a slight increase in the number of hours one spends exercising leads to a 31% lower risk of dementia.
Dementia can be counteracted with the help of exercise.
Alt: a woman holding an x-ray picture of brain scans
Although worrying about dementia can seem miles away if you are, for example, preoccupied with daily issues that are a natural part of transitioning into adulthood, taking up exercise is a step towards assuming a generally healthy outlook on life.
So, it is not only individuals who are at risk of developing dementia and related conditions that can benefit from exercise. There is an array of chronic conditions that are developed in later years of life that directly or indirectly influence cognitive health. So, cardiovascular functioning, although not in direct association with your brain, is an important indicator of your overall body health.
Luckily, regular moderate-intensity exercise improves blood flow to the brain, has advantageous effects in terms of reducing inflammatory responses in the body, and lowers the secretion of stress hormones. In sum, maintaining all of these processes in the body in check works towards enhancing your cognitive functioning in the long run.
Exercising ‘strengthens’ the brain
And it is not only muscles, glands, and other organs apart from the brain that garner benefits from physical activity. Regular physical exercise is believed to increase the thickness of the brain cortex and the fitness of your white matter.
It influences the brain’s neuroplasticity, or the ability to create new neural connections. It also increases flexibility for adapting to the ever-changing nerve impulses that come from the environment. One of the key centers in the brain where these functions take place is the hippocampus, which is the center that is mostly responsible for memory.
So, exercising stimulates a number of brain processes that are indispensable for your everyday functioning, which is why it can be said that, in a way, it ‘strengthens’ not only the muscles in your body but also your brain.
If you do not feel like exercising, taking a long walk instead will do.
Alt: a woman resting on a fence after a walk
You do not have to engage in physical exercise to feel benefits
In some cases, going overboard with exercising is considered by health experts to be even harmful to your body, mind, and well-being. This is the main reason why doing exercise should not only be observed as a way to improve your physical appearance but also as an activity that is seamlessly integrated into your routine and habits.
So, maintaining the health of your brain and your body does not mean you have to rush to the gym every other day to meet your weekly workout quota. You can even set up a home gym and exercise without leaving your home. Your body and mind might enjoy such a workout routine more than the nowadays popular weight-lifting exercises in the gym.
Therefore, you should adjust your workout sessions depending on your preferences, strength, and fitness level. If your daily tasks become too time-consuming, you do not have to stress over the fact you have not fulfilled a set goal. You should not force yourself or your body to conform to any established norms or unrealistic expectations if you sense that following a workout regime causes you more stress than good.
How much do I need to exercise to help my brain work better?
Fortunately, the amount of exercise you have to take up to maintain your brain functions does not have to be too drastic for you to experience short-term and long-term cognitive benefits. Research has found that even people whose activity does not meet the ideal 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week benefit from each hour of light physical activity, such as walking 7,000 steps each day.
So, any exercise is better than no exercise – so much so that people who do not exercise at all eventually end up with lower total brain volume, which means that they are biologically older than people who do engage in some form of physical activity. Essentially, physical exercise helps your brain work better when you do it in moderation.