Which Physical Exercises are Best for the Brain?

Not only is exercise crucial for your overall physical and mental wellbeing, but it is also specifically important for maintaining an optimally functioning, healthy brain. Exercise increases the flow of nutrients, blood, and oxygen to the brain, helping to keep it in peak condition and improve your brain health.

Exercising regularly can also improve sleep, reduce stress, prevent high blood sugar levels, support healthy blood pressure, and boost mood – all of which help protect the brain from harm.

Aerobic activity, in particular, boosts brain function called neurogenesis, which is the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain [1]. Neurogenesis helps protect against Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline while maintaining memory.

While any exercise is beneficial for brain health, these 5 activities are exceptional options for improving brain health and potentially staving off cognitive decline [15].

Brain Health: Improve Your Brain Health With These Exercises
Brain Health: Which Physical Exercises are Best for the Brain?

Swimming

Swimming is one of the most intense aerobic exercises, involving all the major muscle groups, working the lungs and heart, and increasing blood flow to the brain. Additionally, the rhythmic motion and sound of your breathing during swimming are meditative and calming. Combined, these effects trigger the release of endorphins, hormones that elevate mood and decrease the perception of pain.

One study showed that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity swimming improved hand-eye coordination by 4% [2], while another study showed that 7 days of swimming exercise training (in rats) improved memory [3]. A review of existing research also indicated positive effects of exercise (such as swimming) on task performance in children with ADHD [4].

Table Tennis

A highly aerobic exercise requiring coordination, table tennis is one of the best brain-boosting exercises you can do. One Japanese study showed that ping-pong activates up to 5 different areas of the brain at the same time [5]. In the study, table tennis players with brain disease displayed decreased signs of depression and dementia alongside improved awareness and brain function.

Another study showed that aerobic exercise such as playing table tennis increases the size of the front part of the hippocampus by 2%, leading to improvements in spatial memory function [6].

Additional research showed that table tennis exercise may improve the motor symptoms of patients with Parkinson’s Disease [7]. After a 6-month regimen of weekly 5-hour exercise sessions, study participants showed improvements in balance, walking, getting out of bed, dressing, and speaking.

Many of these brain health benefits also apply to racquet sports outside of ping-pong, such as tennis, racquetball, and pickleball – activities that also have a low likelihood of causing brain injuries.

Strength Training

No longer just for powerlifters, strength training has been shown to have numerous physical and metal benefits, including [8]:

  • Improvements in brain function among older adults
  • Reduced anxiety symptoms among healthy adults
  • Improvements in self-esteem
  • Reduced symptoms of depression
  • Improved sleep quality among depressed older adults
  • Reductions in pain intensity among patients with low back pain, fibromyalgia, or osteoarthritis
  • Reduced symptoms of fatigue

Additionally, research has shown that resistance exercise leads to long-term brain benefits in people with mild cognitive impairment [9].

Yoga

With a style for every person’s taste, yoga is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. In addition to being excellent for stress relief, a large review of studies showed that yoga has many benefits include: joint disorders, reduced risk of developing diabetes, improved immunity, lower BMI, reduced blood pressure, lower cardiovascular risk, and improved mental ability [10].

In fact, yoga seems to increase the volume of the hippocampus as well as aerobic exercise [11], making it an excellent option for people who can not handle harder activities. In a different study, participants in an 8-week yoga group showed significantly improved performance with mental flexibility and working memory compared to those who performed simple stretching techniques rather than a full yoga course [12].

Dancing

Since dancing combines music, social bonding, and coordination, it activates multiple areas of the brain, boosting brain health in unique ways. While social connection helps relieve symptoms of depression, the music that accompanies dancing also stimulates the brain’s reward centers, making us feel good and increasing levels of serotonin.

One study showed that 12 weeks of three times a week dance training meaningfully decreased depression levels in young adults [13]. Another study showed that participation in leisure activities – such as dancing – is associated with a reduced risk of dementia [14].

Exercise for Brain Health

While incorporating any exercise into your life will benefit your brain (as well as your overall physical and mental health), these specific exercises will give your brain the best boost.

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References:

  1. Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland Australia, What is neurogenesis? https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/brain-physiology/what-neurogenesis
  2. Leena N. Shoemaker, Luke C. Wilson, Samuel J. E. Lucas, Liana Machado, Kate N. Thomas, James D. Cotter, The Physiological Society, Swimming-related effects on cerebrovascular and cognitive function, https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.14814/phy2.14247
  3. Mahmoud A. Alomari, Karem H. Alzoubi, Omar F. Khabour, The Physiological Society, Swimming exercise improves short- and long-term memories: Time-course changes, https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.14814/phy2.14851
  4. Aylin Mehren, Markus Reichert, David Coghill, Helge H. O. Müller, Niclas Braun, and Alexandra Philipsen, Physical exercise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – evidence and implications for the treatment of borderline personality disorder, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6945516/
  5. Dr. Teruaki Mori and Dr. Tomohiko Sato, The Effectiveness of Exercise Intervention on Brain Disease Patients: Utilizing Table Tennis as a Rehabilitation Program, https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.14814/phy2.14851http://www.saefusa.org/about-us
  6. Kirk I. Erickson et al, PNAS, Exercise training increases the size of hippocampus and improves memory, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1015950108
  7. Kenichi Inoue, Table tennis exercise for patients with Parkinson’s disease: a prospective pilot study, https://n.neurology.org/content/94/15_Supplement/485
  8. Patrick J. OConnor, Matthew P. Herring, Amanda Lee Adrian, Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults, The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/244918384_Mental_Health_Benefits_of_Strength_Training_in_Adults
  9. Kathryn M.Broadhouse et al, NeuroImage: Clinical, Hippocampal plasticity underpins long-term cognitive gains from resistance exercise in MCI, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213158220300206?via%3Dihub
  10. P A Balaji, Smitha R Varne,1 and Syed Sadat Ali, PubMed, Physiological Effects of Yogic Practices and Transcendental Meditation in Health and Disease, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3482773/
  11. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau, Experts review evidence yoga is good for the brain, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191212105851.htm
  12. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, The Effects of an 8-Week Hatha Yoga Intervention on Executive Function in Older Adults, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glu09
  13. Mehibe Akandere, Banu Demir, The effect of dance over depression, PubMed, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22053537/
  14. Joe Verghese, M.D. et al, Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly, The New England Journal of Medicine, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa022252
  15. Amens Clinics, These 5 Physical Activities Improve Brain Health, https://www.amenclinics.com/blog/these-5-physical-activities-improve-brain-health/

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