It’s clear that regular exercise is good for your body.
The development and maintenance of strength, cardiovascular health, and flexibility wards off many diseases such as high blood pressure, heart and vascular disease, and it simply makes your day-to-day life much easier than it would be if you were weak, de-conditioned, and stiff.
What may not be so obvious, but is equally important (if not more so) than the physical changes are the mental and cognitive benefits from regular exercise.
Being physically active improves your current brain power and capacity, and can be protective of the decline associated with aging related illnesses. The newest research shows the effects to be cumulative and more beneficial the sooner you start and the longer you continue.
Below, we’ll go over a list of what exactly is improving when you exercise, and then go over the most productive ways to go about it, but here are some of the biggest benefits:
- Physical training slows down brain shrinkage that normally starts at around age 40
- Being active can protect you from diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s – even if they run in your family
- Moving in creative ways stimulates the brain even more, encouraging more brain activity than with regular training
Let’s look at these benefits in detail.
How the Brain Changes as We Age (and How Exercise Can Keep the Brain Young)
As we age (starting as early as 40 years old) there is a normal shrinking in the areas of our brains associated with memory. This affects not only memories of our past, but also our working memories of how to perform different skills and actions.
These brain regions (hippocampus and corpus callosum) decline in the number of neurons and white matter as we get older, and as that structure decreases, it leads to a loss of function. Thankfully, this decline is halted and even reversed with regular physical training.
You aren’t just building muscle when you get up and move, you are gaining cognitive function!
Testing before and after periods of consistent exercise show improvements in tests of memory, attention, and the speed of processing information.
A comprehensive longitudinal study, which followed participants over the course of twenty years saw those who kept physically active had better verbal memories than those who were sedentary.
And this benefit is not just for those of us entering or into middle age. There are clear correlations in higher academic ability in preteens and teens who exhibit greater levels of cardiorespiratory fitness than their peers.
A sound mind in a sound body isn’t then just an ideal, but seem to truly go hand in hand.
Lifelong Movement is Protective of Mental Health
Along with the improvements in brain function are the protective effects of exercise against brain diseases.
From what we’ve described above with the building and atrophy prevention of neural structures, it’s not surprising that exercise could help in various conditions associated with degenerative changes. As this study noted, regular exercise is also associated with a lower risk of developing such disorders.
But it is also helpful against diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s diseases, which had been generally thought to be genetic disorders. And as commonly happens when we are all told something is “genetic”, it can create so much anxiety and hopelessness.
It’s very empowering to realize that you aren’t resigned to “fate” if there is incidence of these diseases in your family, and that, in fact, you can do something about it.
How Creative and Exploratory Movements Improve Your Brain Fitness
In general, the research on the benefits of physical activity on cognitive status and development doesn’t specify any particular type of exercise.
They use broad terms such as “relatively strenuous” or “aerobic,” and looks at heart rate as the primary measure of exertion. For most of us reading this, that could mean anything from a walk around our neighborhood, biking around with the kids, or bodyweight movement-oriented training.
As long as you are moving around consistently and with good effort you will reap the neurological benefits.
Yet it also stands to reason that some forms of activity would be better than others. In studies done on enriched environments they compared animal habitats that were sparse in sensory stimulation with those that were enriched with objects of interest and play (toys, wheels, etc).
As you can likely guess, those animals reared in more stimulating environments had increased brain activity and function.
Extrapolating from this, we’d argue that creative movement patterns that create unique stimulus for the body, would likely lead to better stimulus for the brain as well.
And it’s also more fun!
Instead of zoning out on a treadmill or exercise bike for 30 minutes, it’s so much more enjoyable to explore what your body can do by playing like Ryan does here.
Add consistent regular activities into your day that you enjoy, and invigorate not just your physical health but your mental capacity as well!
Keep Yourself Healthy – Mentally and Physically
The idea that exercise can impact brain health in numerous ways is incredibly meaningful for everyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of life through the years.
For those of us with a regular exercise regimen, this is good encouragement to continue with it, even on those days and weeks you’d rather just lie down and watch TV. And for those who need to start back up and keep at it, I hope this information gives you a little bit of a boost to make it happen.
As we’ve established in this article, all forms of exercise are good for the mind and body, but unique stimulus provides the best combination for optimal brain health. Try incorporating any of the following into your routine:
- Games and challenges where exercise movements are part of the strategy for achieving a goal.
- Moving in highly stimulating environments, hiking, swimming, climbing a tree, etc.
- Unstructured exploratory movement play.
- Even something as simple as running or walking on paths you’re not used to.
- Engage in bodyweight training that challenges your muscles and mind in different ways than you could with weights.
It’s difficult to over-stress how important being physically active is for your health and well-being.
It also makes you really think a bit about how you want to live.
You are essentially making a choice between a slow decline or going into the rest of your years with physical and mental vitality.
It becomes less of a motivation for simply “looking good” or even performing well in your favorite sport/activity, and more of preservation and enhancement of who you are as a person, now and for the rest of your life.
No matter where you are in your fitness journey, our Elements course will give you a foundation of strength, mobility, and control that will keep you on a healthy path for a lifetime. It’s an important step in maintaining a healthy mental state for as long as possible.
Make Fun, Complex Movement Practice Part of Your Routine
With Elements, you’ll build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control over 8 weeks, setting yourself up for a successful lifetime of staying fit and active.