Develop Brain Fitness—At the Gym

Working out is great for the body, but it’s also key for brain health and psychological wellness.

We all know that fitness is good for your body, but research is showing that workouts are great for your brain health, too. The actions that improve and maintain heart health, do the same for that incredible neural network that sits above your shoulders.

Movement helps improve mental and emotional well-being, and for immediate and long-term brain functioning, there are indications that it slows the natural process of degeneration and reduces occurrences of dementia. Much of this focus is on aging adults, but it’s never too early to start: Who doesn’t benefit from better brain function at any time? It’s never too early, or too late, to attend to your brain’s health. The body, and the brain, are continually changing—healing or deteriorating. What you do today helps determine the trajectory your health is taking.

Working Out Your Brain and Body Together: A Powerful Combination

Researchers are discovering the benefits of what they call effortful learning or dual tasking, which, says a Cody Sipe in a recent Fitness Journal article, “combines mental exercises with physical movement.” That is, effortful learning is using your brain in combination with moving your body. One example might be, a trainer shows you a series of five movements one time only and then asks you to go through those movements in reverse order. Or, a trainer asks you to solve simple math equations while you perform your squats or lunges. Combining language learning with your workout or learning a complex physical challenge like a dance routine are other effortful learning tasks.

Sipe goes on to say that “preliminary studies suggest that this type of dual tasking may be more beneficial than the sum of the activities’ separate gains. What’s more, the combined effects can have a profound impact on both ameliorating and preventing cognitive decline in older people (Shatil 2013).” Furthermore, strengthening your dual tasking abilities in the gym improves them in real life. “The ability to dual-task deteriorates with age,” Sipe states, “reducing reaction times and walking speeds, causing more frequent run-ins with obstacles and increasing the risk of falls (Pichierri et al. 2011).”

At Body Balance, our personal trainers, in Pleasanton, CA, have years of experience doing effortful learning activities with clients in various stages of life and cognitive abilities. We see, and our clients experience, the benefits firsthand.

Movement Of Any Kind Helps, Too

We can’t move around all day while doing long division and conjugating foreign verbs, and that’s OK. Effortful learning doesn’t have to figure into all of your exercise. For older adults especially, movement of any kind has brain health benefits, and by “any kind,” I mean that literally. Beneficial movement include your gym workout, going for a walk, doing household chores, even chopping vegetables. So says a recent NPR report, which is aptly titled “Daily MovementEven Household ChoresMay Boost Brain Health in Elderly.” The upshot is, get up and move. Or, as the first sentence of this report concisely states, “Want to reduce your risk of dementia in older age? Move as much as you can.”

Another study on a small group of women (191 total) in Sweden also points to the brain benefits of exercise. Here the focus was on well-conditioned middle-aged female athletes; this makes a case for the importance of vigorous exercise. In an article titled “Highly Fit Women and Dementia,” Shirley Archer states, “Middle-aged women with high cardiovascular fitness levels were almost 90% less likely to develop dementia in older age than women with moderate aerobic fitness, according to a recent study in the journal Neurology.” Researchers pointed out that this doesn’t prove cause and effect, only that there is an association between high fitness and lowered rates or later onset of dementia, but the findings are “exciting.”

Physical Well-Being Links to Psychological Well-Being

The benefits of movement extend beyond improved brain function to improved emotional and psychological well-being. We know that exercise helps reduce stress, but even more than that, there is strong evidence that it can reduce the intensity of or prevent depression, and that it is generally a mood booster.

An August 2018 Time article reported on a study where “researchers analyzed data provided by more than 1.2 million U.S. adults who responded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey between 2011 and 2015.” The article goes on to say, “On average, people reported 3.36 days of poor mental health per month. But those who said they exercised — through activities ranging from housework to running — experienced about 1.5 fewer gloomy days per month than sedentary peers, according to the research.”

This study does go on to caution that too much of a good thing isn’t good. You can overdo it as regards exercise and benefits to mental wellness. Exercise sessions that lasted roughly 45 minutes appeared to generate the best results and sessions over 90 minutes were not as effective. Sessions over 3 hours seemed to create more mental burdens than not exercising at all. The study also considered frequency and found that working out 3 to 5 times per week was optimal. The findings “led the researchers to conclude that exercising for two to six hours a week may be the sweet spot for mental health,” says the Time story.

Try Your Study of One

Studies and statistics and suggested amounts, frequencies, types, and intensities of exercise are great motivation and provide helpful guidelines. And information like this gives us hope that we can continue to improve our future wellness. But nothing beats getting out there and, to borrow from a beloved tagline, just doing it.


Cherie Turner

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