Imagine for a moment that you could easily elevate your mood, improve your ability to solve problems, prevent or delay the onset of age-related dementia, and feel better all over. Would you do it? I would — and I do, every time I take a brisk walk, sweat it out on my stationary bike, or go for a hike with my family.
It’s no secret that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body — but what it does for your brain is truly astonishing. Until recently, scientists believed we were born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have — and that a decline in brain function was just a normal part of the aging process. But we now know that exercise floods the brain with a substance called BDNF — often described as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain, stimulating the development of new brain cells and optimizing conditions within the brain for learning, concentration, motivation, and critical thinking. It also stabilizes neurotransmitters — chemicals responsible for mood and other vital psychological functions.
At any age, exercise does remarkable things for the brain. Multiple studies on children show those with higher fitness levels also do better academically. And a study of older adults without dementia found those who walked at least 6 miles a week had a greater brain volume later in life than those who walked less — and this was linked with a huge reduction in risk for dementia.
Pairing cardiovascular exercise with more complex activities — like a brisk walk followed by intense work projects or other mental tasks— creates optimal conditions for brain growth. Vigorous activities that involve difficult motor skills — like basketball, dancing, or ping-pong — also do the trick. Mixing up your fitness plan with new activities and formats will help keep your brain challenged, your body strong, and your workouts fresh. Need some new ideas? Try these:
- Group fitness classes like Zumba®, boot camps, or martial-arts-based cardio
- Any racquet sport — like tennis, badminton, or pickleball
- Roller, in-line, or ice skating
- Multi-sport training — triathlon, duathlon, biathlon, summer biathlon, aquathon
- Dance Dance Revolution® active video game
- Walking, running, or bicycling along a new route
I exercise in the morning to get my brain in gear for the day’s work. I do my best creative and critical thinking after a hearty cardiovascular workout. Morning exercise also boosts my mood for the rest of the day — which helps stave off excessive stress and simply makes life more enjoyable.
The desire for sculpted arms and six-pack abs drive many people to exercise, and that’s fine — there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good. But knowing that I can positively influence my mood, my capacity to think and learn, and my ability to thrive as I get older is far more motivating for me. I’m doing everything I can to protect and fortify my brain as I get older — and that includes maintaining a physically active lifestyle. And I’m teaching my kids to do the same.
How about you?
Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.
- K.I. Erickson, C.A. Raji, O.L. Lopez, J.T. Becker, C. Rosano, A.B. Newman, H.M. Gach, P.M. Thompson, A.J. Ho, and L.H. Kuller. Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood: The Cardiovascular Health Study, Neurology October 19, 2010 75:1415-1422
- Ratey J, Hagerman E, Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Little, Brown, and Company, 2008