Regular exercise is often associated with physical benefits such as heart health and weight maintenance but did you know that there are different ways it is linked to how your brain operates too?
Here’s how exercise can help everyone have more brain power – and maybe even do a better job.
1. Work tasks.
Research has shown that exercise can support “executive function”, says Matthew Heath, professor in kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. Executive function refers to things like “the ability to remember what it is that you are doing on a moment to moment basis”, “switching between tasks” and “things that keep you on track during the workday.”
“It is thought that when you exercise there’s an increase in blood flow to the region of your brain that supports these executive functions,” says Heath. While you may not notice improvements as you go about your work, “I would think that exercise would have a qualitative benefit in the efficiency of your work.” Resistance training and aerobic training are linked to a post exercise benefit to executive function, says Heath.
2. Brain fitness.
Award-winning fitness trainer Oonaugh Duncan says having to learn and perform patterns of movement is beneficial for cognitive function. In a dance or aerobics class, for example, the brain has to process and learn different movements. Duncan says it’s also beneficial when you cross the midline of the body with one of your limbs or do different movements with limbs at the same time (raise one arm and kick the opposite leg). This type of movement uses both sides of the brain, says Duncan.
3. Disease free.
Exercise helps keep your body free of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure – and provides a healthy home for a healthy brain, says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Canada research chair, physical activity, mobility and cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. “The brain is highly metabolic and requires lots of oxygen and blood supply (which exercise provides). Any level of reduction can, over time, acutely impair brain function,” says Liu-Ambrose.
4. Less stress.
Regular physical activity promotes mental well-being and stress control. Chronic stress, anxiety and depression are associated with poor cognitive function, says Liu-Ambrose. Regular physical activity also promotes better sleep – and good sleep is critical for cognitive performance as well as brain health.
5. Fitness mindset.
The way you do one thing is the way you do everything, says Duncan. “If you wake up every morning and give yourself a challenging workout, you’re training yourself to meet challenges and exceed them.” But if you’re neglecting your body, says Duncan, it’s more likely that you’re not going to kick butt in other spheres of your life.
6. Positive attitude.
People often experience an “exercise high” after they exercise and these feelings of exhilaration can translate into a more positive – and winning – attitude. Heath says the euphoric benefit associated with exercising is due to a release of certain bio-molecules. Heath and other experts go so far as to recommend activity (10 jumping jacks, a brisk walk or a workout at the gym) before a meeting or presentation. The activity will increase your ability to pay attention to the situation and help with mood.
Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a long workout, says Heath. “A couple of years ago our research showed that exercise done at moderate intensity for as little as 10 minutes can make a difference. Moderate intensity would be as if you’re walking up a slight incline and you notice that you’re beginning to breathe a bit more.”
7. Good thinking.
“I get my best ideas when I’m going for a run or a walk,” says Duncan. She suggests that if you have an issue you are trying to solve, go for a run or walk or ride a stationary bike. There’s so much intuition and information stored in the body and sometimes physically moving your body can help you get unstuck. “Get out of your head and into your physical body – and see what happens.”
According to Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, adults aged 18-64 should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more, to achieve health benefits.
What’s most important is stressing the body with a high-intensity workout, says Heath. “It seems to have the best overall benefit in terms of cardiovascular and brain health.” He recommends exercise performed at a high intensity (it should make you sweat) at least twice a week.
Any activity is better than none, and quick hits of activity (Liu-Ambrose calls them “activity snacks”) are recommended throughout the day. Take the stairs, walk around your office while you are on a call, walk up and down the stairs while you wait for people to come and view the house you are showing, get up from your chair and sit back down.
People who exercise live longer even though they might have an underlying disease.
“There is a neuro-protective effect associated with exercise,” says Heath. “But it’s also systemic and influences all the major organs and protects them from disease and just general wear and tear associated with aging.”
In a study of 55-year-olds, Heath says individuals who had underlying ailments such as cardiac impairment, cancer and other disease and who didn’t exercise died within five years. But individuals who had an underlying ailment and who were committed to regular exercise had a much longer lifespan.
To make exercise a regular part of your life, choose physical activities you like and will continue to do over months. When it’s safe to do so after the COVID-19 threat has passed, consider taking up a new physical activity that requires learning (such as tennis or squash, or a new yoga class) – it will be good for your body and mind.