Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
If you’re fighting a bit of brain fog or feeling a little forgetful, consider the powerful impact of movement on brain health.
We all know that exercise improves cardiovascular health, helps us manage weight, prevents chronic disease, and improves our mood, but the science is clear that a healthy dose of movement is powerful medicine for our cognitive abilities as well. This is true for healthy individuals seeking to optimize functioning as well as people who are seeking to delay or reverse the effects of disease- or age-related cognitive decline.
While much has already been written on the topic, a study recently published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings adds evidence to the association between cardiovascular fitness and brain health. The study found that increased cardiovascular fitness was correlated with a higher volume of gray matter in the brain. Exercising appears to reduce age-related cognitive decline by decelerating age-related declines in gray matter volume.
The Mayo Clinic’s exercise recommendations are to engage in movement at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes per week (averaging 30 minutes per day, five days per week). This target seems reasonable for most people and confers a broad range of protective health benefits. Any activity that gets your heart pumping is good medicine - walking, jogging, biking, swimming are just a few of the options. If you’re short on time, shorter bouts of higher intensity exercise appear to be a viable alternative for obtaining cognitive gains. Thankfully, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion offers 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise as an alternative minimum movement target in their 2018 guidelines.
The bottom line to remember is to sit less and move more.
While everyone can benefit from an exercise-induced brain boost, research on exercise and the brain offers great promise for the power of exercise to improve cognitive function in aging and to prevent the common - yet not inevitable - process of neurodegeneration that leads to both mild and severe forms of cognitive impairment. By enhancing neurogenesis and brain plasticity, we may be able to use exercise as a therapeutic tool to prevent, delay, or even reverse cognitive decline. Even a single bout of aerobic exercise can improve executive function, enhance mood states, and decrease stress levels, with measurable changes in associated neurophysiological processes.
If you or someone you know is struggling with cognitive impairment, take note that dose and duration of exercise seem to play an important role. According to a recent meta-analysis, older adults with cognitive impairments may benefit most from exercise programs with shorter session duration and higher frequency.
Aerobic exercise gets a lot of attention for improving cognitive fitness, but we need not overlook the power of other modalities, including resistance training and mind-body movement practices, such as yoga or tai chi, for supporting a healthy brain.
Researchers in Israel recently published a study that compared the effects of aerobic and resistance training on cognitive function in healthy young adults. Interestingly, their primary finding was that an acute (single) session of resistance exercise increased both attention and executive function test scores, while an aerobic exercise session improved only executive function scores. What does this mean? Well, resistance training is an important part of a well-balanced movement program because it not only strengthens the musculoskeletal system but also helps us focus, sustain attention, and make better decisions. This might be because cognitively engaging activities that involve hand-eye coordination and rhythmic, coordinated movements might be more cognitively stimulating as well.
Mind-body movement practices, such as yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts, involve coordinated elements of body, mind, and breath that could be particularly stimulating for the brain. A recent review article found that yoga practice helped improve attention and verbal memory among people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia. For people exposed to chronic stress, yoga has also been shown to help improve executive function by restoring balance to the nervous system and reducing stress. Including mind-body movement practice as part of a long-term lifestyle is even more powerful. For example, long-term tai chi practitioners showed significantly stronger cognitive function than age-matched tai chi-naive controls, even after the naive individuals had engaged in a short-term tai chi intervention.
Namaste emphasizes movement as a fundamental pillar of wellbeing, and science supports this emphasis on making movement a priority in our daily lives. If you’ve been exercising diligently for years, you can be encouraged that your efforts are helping to preserve your brain health. But even if the movement is new for you, a healthy dose of vigorous movement can make a measurable impact in your life right away. The key is to find movement styles that bring you joy and are sustainable. Enlisting friends or trainers adds an essential social element to your long term wellness equation. Or get a dog for that extra encouragement to get outdoors!
It’s worth the investigation to figure out how movement can become a natural and welcome part of your life. It might involve discovering something completely new. A night of tango, rock climbing, or Jiu-Jitsu, anyone?
After a bit of exploration, you will likely find yourself emerging from the fog…and into the clear.