Looking for an all-natural way to lift your mood, boost your spirits, improve your memory, and protect your brain against age-related cognitive decline? It’s as simple as moving!
A plethora of recent research, including a new study published this month, suggests that any type of exercise that raises your heart rate and gets you moving and sweating for a sustained period of time, also known as, aerobic exercise, has a significant and overwhelming beneficial impact on the brain.
“Aerobic exercise is the key to your head, just as it is for your heart,” write the authors of an article in the Harvard Medical School blog, “Mind and Mood“.
While some of the benefits like a lift in mood can emerge as soon as a few minutes into a sweaty bike ride, others, like improved memory, might take several weeks to crop up. That means that the best type of fitness for your mind is any aerobic exercise that you can do regularly and consistently for at least 45 minutes at a time.Related: The 9 Best Exercises in Order of Effectiveness
In the latest study to assess the benefits of aerobic workouts on the brain, researchers took a look at hundreds of cancer survivors. They wanted to see if activities like walking and swimming could have any effects on “chemo brain“, a commonly reported side effect of breast cancer treatment that involves memory loss and difficulties focusing.
Since previous research had suggested that regular workouts could help to protect against age-related cognitive decline, the researchers wanted to find out if those results would hold true for cancer survivors too.
They gave nearly 300 breast cancer survivors accelerometers to track their daily activity and access to a specially designed iPad app called Brain Baseline outfitted with quizzes designed to measure their attention and memory. At the end of the week, people who had done aerobic exercise every day were not only significantly less tired than those who did little to no exercise but also did significantly better on the app’s quizzes.
“The message for cancer patients and survivors is to get active!” said Diane Ehlers, the lead author on the study and a professor of exercise psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, in a statement.
Given that the study was only a week-long, more research on cancer patients, in particular, is needed. Still, the evidence that aerobic workouts have a wide range of potentially beneficial impacts on the brain, like reducing the symptoms of depression to strengthening connections in parts of the brain linked to memory, is robust and growing.
A recent pilot study in people with severe depression found that just thirty minutes of treadmill walking for ten consecutive days was “sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression.” Aerobic workouts can also help people who aren’t suffering from clinical depression feel less stressed by helping to reduce levels of the body’s natural stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, according to a recent study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
If you are over 50, a study in the British Medical Journal suggests that the best results come from combining aerobic and resistance exercise, which could include anything from high-intensity interval training, like the 7-minute workout, to dynamic flow yoga, which intersperses strength-building poses like planks and push-ups with heart-pumping dance-like moves. Another study published in May provides some additional support to that same research; finding that adults ages 60-88, walking for 30 minutes four days a week for 12 weeks appeared to strengthen connectivity in a region of the brain where the weakened connections have been linked with memory loss.
Researchers still aren’t sure why this type of exercise appears to provide a boost to the brain, but studies continue to suggest that it has to do with the increase in blood flow, which helps to provide our minds with fresh energy and oxygen. And one of the recent studies in older women who displayed potential symptoms of dementia found that aerobic exercise was linked with an increase in the size of the hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory.
Joe Northey, the lead author of the British study and an exercise scientist at the University of Canberra, said his research suggests that anyone in good health over the age of 50 should do 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic exercise “on as many days of the week as feasible”.