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Physical Exercise and the Brain

When people talk about brain exercises they are usually referring to mental challenges that improve brain function, such as puzzles or neurobics. Those are certainly useful, and are covered on this site. There are a couple links to those pages at the bottom of the page. But the research keeps showing that the brain benefits from physical exercise as well. Here are some of the ways exercising the body helps the brain.

1. It's a mood elevator for most, and brains function better when in a better mood.

2. It tends to regulate blood sugar level. This is important for diabetics, but also because irregular blood sugar levels can give you "brain fog."

3. It improves circulation of blood within the whole body, including the brain.

4. It improves the oxygenation of the blood, meaning more fuel for the brain.

5. It helps lower blood pressure, which lets the brain operate normally.

6. It has been shown to relieve depression.

7. Studies suggest that exercise enhances the production of nerve growth factor. This helps cells in the brain form new connections.

8. Exercise boosts the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which affect mood and help us retain memories.

What Kind of Exercise?

Which types of exercise are best? Aerobic exercise seems to be the most beneficial for the brain. It boosts the oxygenating capacity of the heart and lungs. Twenty minutes of exercise that boosts the heart rate, done three or four times weekly, is the usual recommendation. Walking is my personal favorite for many reasons, including the immediate clarity of the mind that seems to come from this rhythmic and relaxing exercise.

But there is more than just a long-term benefit from exercise. The research clearly shows that exercise immediately boosts brain function as well. Ten minutes of walking, swimming, or pedaling on an exercise machine is enough for this effect. Toward the end of this article there will be a couple simple guidelines for you to remember if you want to get the right types and amounts of exercise for maximum brainpower.

More About Exercise and the Brain

The relationship between physical exercise and your brain health and function is actually a bit more complex than some tips suggest. For example, research shows that activities involving hand-eye coordination is especially good for the growth of new neurons in the brain. These activities include playing ping pong, tennis, running an obstacle course, and playing a piano. Video games - when played in moderation - are also likely to be beneficial.

So should you start playing tennis for twenty-minute stretches several times weekly, in order to boost your brain function? Maybe not. The proper answer might depend on whether you enjoy playing tennis or get stressed by the competitive nature of it. That's right; how you feel about the activity may make a difference in terms of the brain-boosting effects.

Research at the Salk Institute found that mice which regularly ran on an exercise wheel grew twice as many new brain cells as those which were inactive. No big surprise there. However, mice which exercised by swimming did not have a similar growth of new brain cells. Researchers speculate that this is due to the fact that swimming is not an activity the mice would normally choose, and it stresses them. Stress has been shown to slow or stop the growth of brain cells.

What does this mean for us humans? If the researcher's speculations are correct, and the same results are found in humans, exercise alone may not be that great for the brain. It seems that you need to exercise, but in a way that you enjoy (or at least in a way that doesn't cause you more stress).

Exercise for the Brain: Guidelines

Here are those guidelines that I promised you:

1. Do ten minutes of any aerobic exercise for a quick boost of brainpower.

2. Do twenty minutes of any aerobic exercise three times weekly for long term health of body and brain.

3. For the maximum positive effects, do twenty minutes of any aerobic exercise that involves hand-eye coordination and which you enjoy at least three times each week.

The Mental Exercises

When you are done boxing (well maybe the hand-eye coordination benefits are canceled out by the brain-pounding damage), you can continue your brain work with mental workouts. Here are a couple pages that index some of our content on neurobics and riddles and other mental exercises:

And, of course, continue to read The Mind Power Report for more on both the physical and mental exercises. If you are not already subscribed, the subscription form should be in the sidebar and is always on the home page.

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