Did you know that physical activity is the single most important thing you can do to enhance brain fitness? Working up a good sweat acts like a natural wonder drug for your brain and enhances its overall function. But not all exercise is the same. Here’s what different types of physical activity do for your gray matter.
Creating Brain Cells
Aerobic activity that gets the heart rate up for extended periods of time boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a chemical that plays a role in neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells. Think of BDNF as a sort of Miracle-Gro for your brain. When you exercise, your brain sprouts new cells. When your brain doesn’t create as many new cells as it loses, aging occurs.
Research studies show that exercise generates new brain cells in the temporal lobes (involved in memory) and the prefrontal cortex (involved in planning and judgment). These new cells survive for about four weeks, then die off unless they are stimulated. If you stimulate these new neurons through mental or social interaction, they connect to other neurons and enhance learning. This is why you have to exercise consistently to encourage continual new cell growth in the brain. It also explains why people who work out at the gym and then go to the library are smarter than people who only work out at the gym.
Cardio exercise does more than make you smarter, heart-pumping activity is also an instant mood booster and has been shown to be as effective as prescription antidepressant medicine. Exercise activates the same pathways in the brain as morphine and increases the release of endorphins, natural feel-good neurotransmitters.
Getting your heart pumping also allows more of the natural mood-enhancing amino acid L-tryptophan to enter the brain. L-tryptophan is the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which balances moods. With exercise, the muscles of the body utilize the larger amino acids and decrease the competition for L-tryptophan to enter the brain, which makes you feel better.
According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, resistance training may also have protective powers for the brain. After a review of three exercise trials, researchers concluded that resistance training may prevent cognitive decline in older adults.
Exercise that requires coordination activates the cerebellum, which is located at the back of the brain and enhances thinking, cognitive flexibility and processing speed. The cerebellum is also linked to the prefrontal cortex, where judgment and decision-making occurs. This means that participating in activities that require coordination can make you smarter and give you better self-control! Some activities combine many of the above
benefits (see next page).
A better brain translates into a better life and a better body. If that’s what you want, start exercising with brain fitness in mind.
|The World’s Best Brain Sports
The most powerful brain-boosting activities combine both aerobic activity and coordination. Aerobic exercise spawns new brain cells, and the coordination movements strengthen the connections between those new cells so your brain can recruit them for other purposes, such as learning and remembering. Here are the activities I recommend…
• Table Tennis is my favorite combo activity. It also happens to be the world’s best brain sport. Most people refer to it as Ping-Pong, though that’s a trademarked name. Table tennis is a better aerobic exercise than you might imagine, and it gives your brain one heck of a workout. A fascinating brain imaging study from Japan found that just 10 minutes of table tennis increases activity in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum.
It’s like aerobic chess. It’s great for hand-eye coordination and reflexes (cerebellum and parietal lobes). You have to focus (prefrontal cortex) so you can track the ball through space (parietal lobes and occipital lobes), figure out spins (parietal lobes and occipital lobes), and plan shots and strategies (prefrontal cortex and cerebellum). Then you have to follow through and execute those tactics successfully (prefrontal cortex and cerebellum). All the while, you have to stay calm so you don’t get too nervous on game point (basal ganglia). And you can’t dwell on that point you blew a few minutes ago (anterior cingulate gyrus) or blow your top when you make a mistake (temporal lobes).
• Dancing is highly aerobic and is especially good for your brain if you are learning new steps rather than just grooving to the music. Taking classes in ballroom, hip-hop or jazz dancing where you have to memorize routines is ideal.
• Tennis and basketball require good hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and an ability to see the court and plan your shots.
• Martial arts actually enhance the brain’s physical structure. Researchers in Brazil found that people who participated in a form of martial arts had significantly higher gray-matter tissue density than nonparticipants. Of course, this only applies if you don’t engage in any sort of contact that could result in a brain injury (e.g., mixed martial arts).
By Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D.
Daniel G. Amen, MD is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, brain-imaging specialist, CEO of Amen Clinics Inc., and author of 24 books, including three New York Times bestsellers.
Muscle & Body, September 2010