Everyone knows physical exercise makes you fitter, releases endorphins to make you happier. Now research shows that certain exercise can increase your cognitive power! Who wouldn’t want to be smarter?
Why is Exercise Beneficial to the Brain
Exercise increases heart rate, larger quantities of oxygen get pumped into the brain and all muscles in the body to fuel the physical activity. The increased oxygen will also reduce brain-bound free radicals to bring about an increase in mental alertness.
Exercise increases the number of newborn neuron’s creation, survival and resistance to damage when their growth is hampered by excessive stress and depression. Neurons are electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information by electro-chemical signalling. Their activities can also affect our behaviour and mood.
Effect of Exercise on Our Brains at Various Stages of Our Lives
The Growing Brain
Exercise involves selection, planning and co-ordinating actions, ignoring distracters and managing several pieces of information at once. Such cognitive control involves the frontal lobes of our brains and this part continues to develop well into our twenties.
The Fully Grown Brain
For those who are well past adolescence, exercise helps to maintain mental abilities in old age. Physical fitness at midlife reduces the risk of dementia and for those with dementia, physical activity can slow down its progress. Physically active seniors have shown to have larger volumes of the brain in the hippocampus which is prone to shrinkage in dementia.
In all age levels, physical activity correlates with better brain structure which is reflected in larger volume in some areas. Exercise can make us feel more lively and energetic, allowing us to think better, thus enhancing our thinking prowess. Acetylcholine production which increases with exercise also activates the areas of the brain which are responsible for cognition, emotion and arousal.
WhAT Type of Exercise Should We Do To Get Smarter?
Aerobic exercises have been evaluated for their effects on mental health, cognition and memory. Results have shown that virtually all of these have shown improvements in each of these parameters after long term exercise programs. We are talking about just 20 minute session of exercise can improve memory. The trick is to do that consistently and persistently.
A single short session of resistance training is shown to improve long term memory in young, healthy adults. This was observed in a study that included 46 participants who were asked to remember the photos shown to them 2 days earlier.
The active group (the one that completed the leg extensions with maximal personal effort) remembered more of the photos than the passive group (the one that just sat on the exercise equipment and allowed researchers and the machine to move their legs). Saliva samples obtained from the groups also showed the active group had higher levels of alpha amylase, a marker of norepinephrine levels in the brain. This marker has been linked to better memory in rodent and human studies.
The norepinephrine release after learning something new improves the ability to remember what was learned. Other simple strength training activities, such as traditional weight-lifting, push-ups, sit-ups, knee bends or squats, would likely have the same effects on memory. The best part here is that we do not need to dedicate large amounts of time to exercising to realise the gains.
Don't Forget That Healthy Diet Is Just As Essential
Other studies have found that the fatty layer of myelin which coats the neural wires is linked to IQ. The better the myelin coating, the more insulated the neural wiring and the faster the messages travel through the brain.
Myelin is made up of fatty acids and a diet with balanced omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids will go a long way to promote brain health and intelligence. As most modern day diets already include a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, we all need to consciously choose foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as wild salmon and mackerel. Taking omega-3 fish supplements is the second best option if the same cannot be obtained from foods.
Take Action Now
If you have lagged behind on your New Year Resolution or if it needs a little jump start, imagine yourself in peak body condition with a sharper mind, better memory and most important of all, feeling happy and positive! Take hold of your health and life and make them better!
 Fiatarone Singh MA, Gates N, Saigal N, Wilson GC, Meiklejohn J. Brodaty H, Wen W, Singh N, Baune BT, Suo C, Baker MK, Foroughi N, Wang Y, Sachdev PS and Valenzuela M (2014). The Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) study – resistance training and/or cognitive training in mild cognitive impairment: a randomised, double-blind, double-sham controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 15(12), 873–80 PMID:25444575.