If you’re not exercising regularly, your life is about to get a whole lot better. That is, assuming you’re willing to start working out. When most of us think of exercise, we think about muscle mass. You may work out to get stronger, leaner or faster. But did you know that exercise benefits more than your physical strength? It also benefits your brain.
You may have heard people say that meditation is like a workout for your mind. Well, exercise physical exercise is too (albeit in different ways).
Physical exercise can help strengthen your hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that regulates emotions and helps to form memories. If this sounds like exciting news, you should hear Wendy Suzuki talk on the subject. Wendy is a neuroscientist who recently gave a passionate TED Talk on the subject.
So pick up those dumbbells and get smarter – or at least, remember more.
How exercise impacts the brain
There are two ways exercise impacts the brain: directly and indirectly. Indirectly, exercise helps boost your mood, improves sleep and reduces stress. In fact, exercise is a natural remedy for anxiety.
Whenever you have a problem that affects these areas (mood, sleep or stress), it can contribute to cognitive impairment. You’ll notice that when you’re exhausted or highly stressed, you’ll often have trouble concentrating. Studies have found that exercise also increases the volume of the areas of the brain that control thinking and memory. A PNAS study found that people who exercise more often actually have a larger hippocampus than people who don’t exercise.
Directly, you can benefit from exercise’s ability to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation. Exercise also stimulates the release of brain chemicals that help protect your brain cells.
How to use exercise to strengthen your brain
While we can assume that most forms of exercise have similar effects on the brain, most studies on the matter have used walking as the exercise form. In the PNAS study, participants walked briskly for one hour twice a week. If you’d rather engage in a different form of exercise, just aim for at least 120 minutes of brisk aerobic activity each week. The goal is to get your body moving and your heart pumping.
If this sounds like too much for you, try exercising for a few minutes each day and work your way up. Remember, any exercise is better than no exercise.
And if you need more motivation than strengthening your brain, here are some other ideas to get you pumped about exercising.
- Choose something fun – When you were a kid, exercise was called playing, and you couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Try to start thinking of it this way again, and you may begin to enjoy it again. Some fun ideas include playing a team sport or going dancing.
- Choose an exercise partner – You’re more likely to exercise when you have someone to hold you accountable. But having a good partner can also make exercise more fun. Choose someone with similar goals to yours to ensure you stick with it for the long term.
- Trick yourself into working out – If the idea of a workout really repulses you, fit in small workouts throughout the day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and/or park across the parking lot, so you have to take more steps to get to your car.
Exercise has so many benefits, but knowing that it can help improve memory and cognition may help make it a priority. With a stronger hippocampus, you’ll stand a better chance at fighting neurodegenerative diseases like dementia later in life. Start working out today and keep your mind fresh for years to come.