Moderate-Intensity Exercise Can Help Improve Your Thinking And Memory In Just Six Months

The positive effects of exercise on the brain (how it works and where to begin).

We know that exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy weight, preserving muscle strength and keeping your heart strong and healthy. It is also known to reduce the risk of highly prevalent disorders such as depression, anxiety and Alzheimer's disease. 

What isn’t immediately apparent is that regular exercise is also vital for a healthy functioning brain. Through increased blood flow to the brain, physical activity triggers biochemical changes that spur neuroplasticity (the production of new connections between neurons in the brain), helping to generate new brain cells and the ability to adapt, learn and grow. Let’s discuss this further. 

How it works

Aerobic exercise gets your heart pumping, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to hard-working muscles. It directly stimulates physiological changes in the body, such as reductions in insulin resistance and inflammation which accounts for some of the mood-enhancing effects of physical activity.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is the growth factor that promotes new brain cells’ growth and supports existing brain cells’ survival, especially in the hippocampus, which is vital for memory. Exercise increases the expression of BDNF with just 30 minutes of activity increasing blood levels of BDNF by 30%. These rises link to improvements in cognitive function, including memory and processing speed.

The positive effects of exercise on the brain

The parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are more significant in volume in people who exercise than in people who don’t. If this alone doesn’t convince you that exercise is essential, then perhaps some of these effects will seal the deal:   

  • Exercise releases endorphins - the pain and pleasure responses in the central nervous system. Increased endorphins and consistent physical activity can help to sharpen focus and improve mood and memory.
  • It reduces the risk of developing depression and anxiety 
  • It is known to elevate mood 
  • It increases stress resilience 
  • Working to improve new skills helps you reinforce a growth mindset within yourself. 
  • Improves sleep quality. We know how important sleep is for the brain - and exercise can help secure these benefits. 

What is the ideal amount of exercise? 

According to the NHS, at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or cycling every week and strength exercises on two or more days a week, work all of the major muscle groups. If you prefer vigorous activities such as running or a tennis game every week, the time reduces down to 75 minutes plus strength exercises two or more days a week. Or a mixture of the two. 

Where to begin

Whether you are just starting with your exercise regime or are a seasoned pro, these simple steps will ensure you meet the recommended weekly activity limits. Focusing on the basic lifestyle habits that are known for boosting your brainpower will make a huge difference. 

  1. Start small; think movement vs strenuous activity. 
  2. Make it fun and find something that you can enjoy like dancing around the living room, cycling or yoga. 
  3. Try to make your life generally more active which could include walking meetings, choosing to stand rather than sit or cycling instead of driving.
  4. Try to think of all physical activities as an opportunity to improve the health of your brain. 
  5. All forms of activity count - the emphasis is simply to move.

Exercise boosts your memory and thinking skills both directly and indirectly. One thing that stands clear is that there is no shortcut: to keep your brain nourished, you must keep moving.

Recommended reading

Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health

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