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Does exercise improve our brainpower?

Thanks to our resident cognitive scientist, Martina Ratto, we have the answer, and the short one… yes! Like the rest of our body parts, our brain is a physical organ, so keeping our body fit will ensure we have a “fit brain” too.

“Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being. It is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning.”

John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

You might be thinking, ‘oh, great here’s more reasons I should’ve got a peloton in the sales,’. But don’t fret, we don’t need to be sport fanatics to benefit from exercise. In fact, Martina says, “actually, small, but regular movement has the best beneficial effect to our brain, even for just 10 minutes.”

Martina says, “actually, small, but regular movement has the best beneficial effect to our brain, even for just 10 minutes.”

So it’s really just about keeping active, moving our bodies, not becoming the next peloton enthusiast. There are many ways to keep active in our everyday living that can keep us moving, many of which we barely even notice doing.

Simple movements to keep the brain fit:

  • Walking, whenever we get the chance to, whether it’s from the home office, to the loo, to the kitchen and back, or getting out on your lunch break for a stroll. Many of us have pets to take out, maybe you enjoy perusing the shops, walking with friends or colleagues instead of just grabbing a coffee.

  • Commuting, although many of us have been enjoying a lack of commute with working from home these past couple of years, some of us might be missing it and some of us have returned to the office. Try walking, cycline, roller-blading (if you dare). Using that time to get some movement in whether we on the way to the office or using the time to move from home is great way to kickstart brain power for the day!

  • Standing up and stretching, simple and easy, who’d have thought that from wellbeing advice? You could try a standing desk, or just standing during meetings to break up the day and get some movement in. taking regular breaks to pause, stand and stretch is another quick way to include some movement, especially if ‘being at work’ is our usual excuse!

  • And don’t forget about our household chores, hoovering, gardening, laundry, they’re also beneficial to our brain’s functioning by those small movements that add up.

But if rigourous, sweat-beading movement is more your style, here are some activities that enhance our brain power in different ways:

  • Aerobic workout: getting our heart pumping to a moderate intensity stimulates the release of chemicals maintaining our brain cells healthy

  • Swimming: even just immersing ourselves in water improves vascular health and the flowing of blood in our brain, thus improving cognitive functioning

  • Team sports: in addition to the benefits of movement, team sports are a good training for developing our group thinking skills, coordination with others and strategic thinking. Be careful when playing sports with balls such as American football as concussion may have damaging effects on our brain.

  • Martial arts: improve self-control, focus, processing speed and coordination, while providing an active form of mindfulness helping to control stress and anxiety

  • Dance: combines the benefits of aerobic exercise with the powerful effect that music has on our mood and overall wellbeing, while mind-body coordination

  • Yoga: providing some of most accessible forms of meditation, improves mental wellbeing and enhance our ability to regulate emotion and to process memories.

So we’ve got almost too many options, but before you get overwhelmed, Martina gave us some golden nuggets to share with you to help us see the benefits for our brains:

Exercise improves our mental performance. We’ve all had those slow days, concentrating is hard work, listening is even harder, and we can’t remember 5 minutes ago nevermind what we were asked to do in the meeting. Exercise increases our ability to think, it allows us to be sharp, responsive, accurate, productive as well as creative. Try going for a walk before starting a creative project or brainstorming meeting.

Reduces stress and anxiety. In which case, we’ll get right on it. Exercise actually has a calming effect on the body, despite the racing heart post-sprint for the bus. Slow and steady exercise like yoga or martial arts help us to control our cortisol levels (that’s the stress hormone) and enhancing positivity hormones like endorphins. Try stretching at your desk between meetings or tasks for a little stress relief and brain boost.

Protection against cognitive decline. Regular exercise across the lifespan helps to protect our physical health as well as our brain health, helping to prevent deterioration in later life. For example, research has shown that exercise not only reduces our risk of developing dementia, but it can also help people living with the condition to improve their brain functioning, by making blood flow in the brain vessels.

Well, who knew there were so many benefits for the brain alone. Martina, that’s who knew. Thanks Martina. Next time you're feeling a little sluggish give some of those simple ideas a go, remember desk stretches don’t require us to mimic a baby dinosaur but those ones are usually much more satisfying. If you’re feeling pumped with energy, give an aerobic workout a go or reignite your passion for swimming.

Stretcher-saurous: the new dino on the block with a reminder for you. Exercise can sometimes be daunting or downright chore-like, but remember it’s for your brain too, and any movement counts (unless it's stretching across the floor to reach the remote from the sofa, that’s pushing it a bit really). Your brain will thank you with a power boost!




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