Physical Exercise and Brain Health

physical exercise

Written by Nicole Scheidl

July 9, 2021

Back in 2010 I felt that my life was full of mental stimulation but lacked physical exercise. We were starting Fit Minds and it was challenging and interesting. My research on brain health encouraged me to hit the pool for the first time in over 20 years. After about 20 minutes of swimming my arms and legs felt tired, and I felt very relaxed.

I left the pool refreshed and rejuvenated, vowing to return tomorrow.

Fast forward 10 years and half-way through a pandemic lockdown. I admit at the beginning of 2021, I was in a bad place. My physical exercise (or lack thereof) was affecting my health. My mental health was not great, so in early 2021, I decided to focus on eating better and regular exercise.

Starting in March I signed up for Noom and I purchased an Echelon bike. I like both of those products, but the point is not to do exactly what I did – but to find your own best practice for yourself.

To do that it is important to understand the effect that physical exercise can have on brain health.

Physical Exercise and Cognitive Function

There has been a lot of research over the past 10 years suggesting that both physical exercise and the challenge from mental exercise increases the secretion of nerve growth factors which helps neurons grow and stay healthy.

In an updated look at the research on physical exercise and cognitive function in the brain, the Journal of Sport and Health Science confirmed that physical exercise maintains or improves cognitive functions.

The researchers focused on the presence of neurotrophins in the brain. Simply put neurotrophins are nerve growth factors whose final effect is neurogenesis. They promote the growth of new neurons and synapses which helps your brain stay stronger and healthier.

But the positive effect may depend on the amount and intesity of the exercise.

How much physical exercise?

Let’s dig into that a bit more.

The FINGER study out of Sweden asked this question. They found that increased physical activity, improved cognitive performance by 25%.

In that study, individuals completed one hour of aerobic exercise four (4) times a week.

Another study found that 52 hours over six months resulted in cognitive improvements. That is 2 hours per week of aerobic exercise.

The meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sport and Health set the bar at 90 minutes per week.

What you should take away is that aerobic exercise is important for brain health.

Effective Physical Exercise

Now I like to exercise.

But I want to make sure that my exercise is getting results.

To get the best results from physical exercise that is aerobic, workout at 70% of your maximum heart rate. To calculate that benchmark, you need to subtract your age from 220. That will give you your maximum heart rate.

If you are 60 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 160 beats per minutes. 70% of your maximum heart rate would be 112 beats per minute.

Of course, this is a benchmark. And if you have any concerns, you should check with your physician.

But if you are in good health this is a great benchmark to use.

Your Challenge

So your challenge this week is to find the exercise routine that you enjoy. Swimming may be your thing. Or you may enjoy walking, dancing or yoga. You may want to invest in an exercise bike or Nordic pole walking. The important thing is to get into a routine of regular physical exercise. It will boost the release of neurotrophins and protect your brain.

Let me know in the comments below the outcome of your challenge and what you did for physical exercise.

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