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Physical activity and brain health

Getting active can give your brain a boost too

Exercising for your brain – sounds strange right? Many of us know that exercise is good for our body but aren’t aware of how exercise impacts our brain health. Exercise can boost your brain in several ways, so let’s focus on these three!

1. Exercise improves your thinking skills (cognition)

Your brain is an organ, and just like our hearts or lungs you can improve its performance through exercise, particularly thinking skills. Thinking skills (cognition) are mental processes our brain undertakes so we can take in information to learn, understand, and interact with the world. This includes our ability to plan, focus, remember and problem solve. In fact, research shows that just 10-20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (e.g. a brisk walk), can immediately show a positive effect on our thinking and focus. Research also shows those who exercise more regularly have better results in thinking tasks or in controlling certain behaviours (eating an entire block of chocolate, scrolling social media, managing alcohol or substance use).

2. Exercise improves memory

Another skill that can be improved through exercise is our ability to remember and learn. These skills are important for work, study and in everyday life. It is thought that exercise improves the health of the hippocampus, a small brain area deep within the temporal lobes of the brain that plays a strong role in memory. Research shows exercising at a high intensity (e.g. going for a fast run) can increase the size of the hippocampus, increase the healthiness of the hippocampus cells and improve connections within the brain. These increases in hippocampus health are linked to improvements in learning and remembering.

3. Exercise reduces your risk of brain disease

As you age, you are at a higher risk of developing brain-related disorders. The number of people in Australia living with significant disability is increasing, and over 70,000 people are diagnosed with brain-related disorders every year (e.g., stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease). Exercise can reduce many risk factors associated with these conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and more. In fact, studies have shown that engaging in physical activity regularly reduces the risk of developing a brain disorder by about 20-30%.

How do I get started?

Consider seeing an Accredited Exercise Physiologist to create a personalised program involving aerobic exercise, resistance training and dual-task balance training that is of moderate to high intensity. This is the most effective for maintaining the brain’s structure and function, and reducing the risk of frailty and falls, which can often accelerate cognitive decline in older age.

Resistance training should be performed with moderate to heavy loads that gradually get heavier. You should aim to do resistance training two to three days per week. A combination of machine weights (i.e. horizontal leg press) and functional movements (i.e. chair stand) should be used to target muscles of the thigh, hip, buttocks, upper back, and the back of the arm, as these muscle groups are crucial for maintaining mobility and independence.

If you are concerned about a loved one or yourself, be proactive and seek a cognitive health check-up from your GP and discuss ways to manage your brain health. While there, ask to see an Accredited Exercise Physiologist to get professional guidance on the best exercise prescription for you.

Authors: Dr Karyn Richardson (Research Fellow) & Sam Hughes (Accredited Exercise Physiologist) from BrainPark



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Last updated: September 28, 2023 at: 1:36 pm