What’s the link between physical activity and brain health?

How physical activity affects brain health

We all know that physical activity is good for our overall health. More than just being good for our bones and heart, exercise is good for our brain. Physical activity’s impacts on the brain include an increase in cognitive function – especially executive functions such as organizing and planning stress relief and helping us sleep better.

As we exercise, blood flow is increased to the brain delivering essential energy to carry out brain functions such as memory. Exercise increases synapse connections between neurons in the brain, creating a new capacity for memories and information. This allows us to maintain memories while adding new ones.

Immediately after exercising, mood and stress levels are impacted. Stress hormones are limited in their delivery to the brain, thus offering temporary relief and lessening their impact on the brain.

Exercise directly impacts sleep and the ability of the brain to experience deep sleep. For many older adults, getting quality sleep is hard to come by, yet deep sleep is necessary to repair and maintain brain cells. Adding exercise into your daily routine can help with sleep issues.

Whether you’re looking to increase memory and cognition, lift your mood or get a deeper sleep, physical activity can help.

How mental exercise can help your brain

Mental exercises are like workouts for the cells and muscles in your brain. Just as you build up muscles and energy from regular physical exercise, mental exercise builds up the cognitive reserves in our brains. This enables the brain to withstand illness and other impacts on the brain.

Some activities that focus the brain’s attention on different tasks will go a long way toward maintaining the ability to do those things but remember to vary the activity. Puzzles, card games, board games, and other problem-solving games have been shown to help senior adults maintain their reasoning skills and information processing for long periods of time.

Communicating with others is another way to exercise the brain. Social activities help us to exercise the mind through both visual and audio clues – we watch for changes in expression, language, and tone for understanding. Social activity can also lift depression allowing for better brain activity.

How to increase brain health through activity

Some decline in memory and understanding is normal with age but it doesn’t have to be a given. There are things that you can do to help keep that brain sharp.

  • Keep physically active, as we’ve said before, exercise for the body helps the brain.
  • Stay mentally active, change your routine for driving home, do puzzles and games, and engage in social conversation and debate.
  • Sleep well. Try to get a good night’s rest or take naps during the day. Rest and relaxation help the brain rejuvenate.
  • Manage your overall health.
Stay physically active

Both mental and physical activities of any kind are good for brain health but, there are some specific activities that you can do to maximize the impact on cognition.

Think about activities that involve balance, flexibility, and raising your heart rate. These can have substantial benefits for brain health. Some examples of exercise routines that involve all of these aspects include yoga, tai chi, and various forms of dancing. Tai chi has actually been found to have the greatest impact on cognition. But any physical exercise that you enjoy can help. Walking, running, and swimming all can have therapeutic effects physically and mentally.

Try mentally stimulating activities

Mental or brain exercises are really anything that involves your cognitive skills. Many people enjoy online games that challenge memory, focus, and problem-solving. Tactile games such as bingo, jigsaw puzzles, board games, model building, and quilting all involve problem-solving as well as maintaining fine motor skills. Activities should be challenging but not too hard.

Stay socially active and engaged

Staying socially active is just as important as physical and mental activities and exercises. As we communicate with others, we notice expressions on people’s faces, listen for tone and apply meaning to language building our cognition. Meeting new people exposes us to new ideas and new experiences.

As we age, our needs for social connections change. We might need more support for thinking through daily activities or someone to enjoy a shared hobby with. Depending on what each person needs you can build connections through a local senior center, religious organizations, online group chats, and book clubs. Craft stores often have connections to sewing groups and other crafting circles. As our lives change and the change happens to the people around us, this may be a time to deepen the relationships we have while building new ones, remembering that we are helping our brains as we do so.

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