Power Up Your Brain!

For a long time, exercise was seen as a way to keep our physical selves healthy. Now we know that it is good for our brains as well.

Large studies have shown that physical exercise can lead to better memory, improved thinking skills and can protect against conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease.

How can exercise change your brain?

Neuroplasticity is a term that describes your brain’s ability to change itself in response to various experiences or exposures. A review article published in Neural Plasticity in 2021 draws on many smaller studies to describe how exercise releases various chemicals that change the number and function of nerve cells (neurons) and their neighbouring support cells (astrocytes). It found exercise also improves blood flow to nerve cells in the brain and increases the connections between nerve cells.

Other studies using brain scans in people have shown that those who exercise have an increased size of the parts of their brain that control thinking and memory.

These findings support the growing understanding that exercise leads to structural and functional changes in the brain.

Scientific Reports published a study in 2023 that included data from more than 350,000 people. It showed that physical exercise leads to better memory, better thinking skills and lowers the risk of developing dementia.

What counts as exercise and how much do you need to do?

The research describes physical exercise as being different to just ‘activity’. To get the benefits of exercise for your brain, you need to aim for 30 minutes, five days a week of moderate exercise (for example a brisk walk, light jog) or 15 minutes fives days a week of more intense exercise. It takes six months before you start to see the benefits, so it is important to develop a habit and stick with it.

How does exercise help my brain overall?

As well as the changes the scientists saw in the structure and function of the brain, physical exercise is also known to help reduce stress and anxiety, improve your mood and often helps you get a better night’s sleep. This all contributes to better brain function.

Getting started

As tempting as it may be to strap on your running shoes and race out for brain health, if you are a novice exerciser, it is a good idea to start slow and build up. Aim for 10 minutes a day and build up to half an hour. Find something you enjoy whether that be a walking group, solo runs or a dance class. You want to start something you can stick to.

Finding your fit

1. Aerobic exercise. Studies show it is never too late to start. Get your blood pumping to boost blood flow to your brain.

2. Weight training. Research shows the benefit of weight training for both memory and other thinking skills. When you practice unfamiliar movements, you activate the nerve pathways in your brain.

3. Yoga. A 2016 University of California study showed that yoga can help your visual-spatial skills and some aspects of memory.

4. Tai Chi. Tai Chi combines both mental focus and movement. It often has a community aspect to it which is also helpful for making your brain feel good.

5. Dancing. A landmark 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed regular dancing reduced the risk of dementia by 76 per cent.

Geriatrician Dr Tabitha Hartwell reminds us ‘Exercise, preferably a mixture of aerobic, strength and stability, is the single most important factor in maintaining physical, mental and emotional health across your lifetime’.