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Adopt an exercise regimen that boosts your brainpower: engage in a variety of workouts to strengthen specific brain regions and functions and maintain overall brain fitness.

There's a mountain of scientific evidence that exercise is a boon for the brain, and that a lack of it--especially in older age--is associated with more rapid brain aging, cognitive decline, mood problems, and greater vulnerability to brain disease, among other effects. Now scientists are learning that different forms of exercise appear to have different effects on the brain, suggesting that it's possible to strengthen key brain regions by engaging in specific types of physical activity.

Varied Exercises, Varied Benefits

"It has become increasingly clear that an exercise regimen that involves a variety of activities--such as a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and balance exercises--offers the best results for the brain," says Louisa Sylvia, PhD, associate director of psychology at MGH's Bipolar Clinic and Research Program. "Exercise also needs to be a regular habit. If you want to stay sharp as you age, you should try to engage in several different types of exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, unless you are physically unable to do so."

If possible, try to incorporate these four major types of exercise into your weekly schedule, so that you can enjoy a variety of brain benefits:

* Aerobic or endurance exercise (e.g., jogging, swimming). Benefits: Boosts levels of growth factors that promote the survival of new brain cells; increases the volume of the hippocampus, a key memory region; helps slow or prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease; improves spatial memory, verbal memory, and overall memory performance; promotes focus and attention.

* Strength training (e.g., lifting weights, squats, pushups). Benefits: Positively affects the brain's prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, thinking, and multi-tasking; boosts levels of a growth hormone that facilitates communication among brain cells; improves associative memory (the ability to link a name to an object or person) and spatial memory (the ability to recognize a place or environment).


* Balance and flexibility (e.g., one-leg stands, stretches). Benefits: Coordination of balance and movement occurs within the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the cerebral cortex.

These brain regions work together to respond to a complex combination of inputs from the body's sensory organs, tendons, muscles, joints, eyes and inner ears that indicate changes in movement, posture, and position. Research suggests that balance can improve with practice, helping to prevent falls. Exercises that promote flexibility help improve an individual's range of movement, exercise performance, and resistance to injury and lead to increased mobility that fosters feelings of independence and self-confidence.

* Sports (e.g., tennis, ping-pong, Softball). Benefits: Positively affects the brains cerebellum, helping to coordinate movement and strengthen attention; through its effects on the prefrontal cortex, improves inhibition (the ability to resist inappropriate actions), as well as task-switching and executive control; increases the volume of the basal ganglia, which is responsible for physical coordination, synchronized movement, and balance; boosts visual-spatial information processing speed and reaction times, as well as short-term memory.

"Yoga and tai chi are other forms of exercise that have been linked with specific benefits for the brain," says Dr. Sylvia.

"Researchers have found that these traditional practices have positive effects on brain regions associated with emotions, and appear to lower levels of stress and help decrease vulnerability to depression and anxiety. Yoga has also been linked to slower brain aging."

Exercise Goes to Your Head

The list of the brain benefits linked to exercise is impressive enough to encourage even confirmed couch potatoes to work out. Some of the more important brain gains include:

* Slowed brain aging, especially in the frontal, temporal and parietal cortexes, brain regions that are key to cognitive performance.

* Stronger memory. Even mild exercise is linked to improved memory skills and a lower risk of dementia.

* Mood elevation. Physical activity reduces stress and lowers risk for depression, which can impair cognitive functioning.

* Brain-cell oxygenation. Exercise -associated infusions of oxygenrich blood to the brain is linked to significant improvements in cognition.

* Energy for the brain. Increased circulation delivers more blood sugar to fuel hungry brain cells.

* Increased growth factors. Exercise boosts levels of important growth factors that help keep the brain healthy and responsive to new demands.

* Neurogenesis. Physical activity promotes neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, and increases brain plasticity--changes in brain processes and structure that help the brain stay resilient and sharp.

* Stronger connections between brain cells help increase the brains processing power and speed.


It's always advisable to check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen. With his or her approval, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days per week. Strive to incorporate each of the following types of exercise into your weekly fitness regimen, beginning with shorter workouts and gradually increasing your activities:


Aerobic exercise. Running, cycling, fast walking, swimming, cross-country skiing, stair-climbing and dancing are examples of activities that pump up your heart rate and respiration and build your physical stamina, with positive effects on brain health.


Coordination and reaction speed. Sports, such as pingpong, tennis, basketball, softball, badminton, and volleyball, help train your brain to perceive and respond quickly and efficiently to physical challenges. If you play them intensely, sports can also provide a good aerobic workout.


Strength training. Researchers recommend engaging in muscle-strengthening exercises for at least 30 minutes twice a week. Some examples: weightlifting, squats, sit-ups, push-ups, chin-ups, bench presses, or exercises using resistance bands.


Balance and flexibility. Regularly engage in stretching exercises to help increase your flexibility and range of movement. Flexibility workouts should involve the gentle stretching of all major muscle groups, including movements such as toe-touching, side-bends, twisting at the waist, neck turns, and shoulder lifts. To improve balance, try walking heel to toe in a straight line, or standing on one leg with a supportive chair or table nearby for steadying, if you need it.
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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