Yes, Cardio Alters Your Brain. Here’s Why That’s Important

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The benefits of regular exercise are seemingly endless. Moving regularly provides us with a mood boost, lowers our risk of disease, and helps us maintain a healthy weight. But recently, there’s been quite a bit of buzz surrounding exercise as a method for preventing cognitive decline.

A study published in August in the journal eNeuro looked at what kind of impact running regularly had on rats. Researchers had one group of rats run a few miles every day while they were young, while the other group lived in standard cages and were generally sedentary.

When the rats were 7 months old (this is middle-age for rodents!) researchers tested their cognitive function and found that newborn cells in the running rats behaved differently than cells in the sedentary rats. The rats who had exercised were about twice as likely to be able to recall past fear-inducing situations and circumstances than the sedentary ones.

While people are certainly not rats, this study does have implications for human beings as well. Here’s what you need to know about how you can use exercise to protect your brain.

So you didn’t exercise while you were young. What can you do?

These days, there’s nothing you love more than a morning run and an afternoon yoga class. But what if you regularly made excuses to skip gym class as a kid? Are you doomed? According to Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., preventive is always best—but it’s definitely not too late to protect your brain against cognitive decline.

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“Starting younger does help prevent cognitive dysfunction and cerebrovascular disease later in life, and the younger we start exercising the better we can help temper effects of other lifestyle choices of the young such as drinking, eating pro-inflammatory foods, and poor sleep schedules,” she explains. “And of course, exercising at a younger age is truly preventive while starting at a later age takes on an element of not only slowing progression but reversal. But if you don’t exercise at young age, don’t get discouraged—just start exercising now. Better later than never!”

Here’s what type of exercise protects against cognitive decline.

While some exercise is always better than no exercise, when it comes to protecting your brain function later in life, not all exercise types are created equal. There’s a reason researchers specifically chose running (rather than say, rat yoga) for the experiment: Cardio is specifically helpful for brain function.

“Cardiovascular exercise such as aerobic and anaerobic is best to sharpen your mind,” explains Ruhoy. “It promotes blood flow, reduces risk of atherosclerosis, and keeps our brains healthy. The act of exercise also helps challenge our balance, our coordination, and our speed—all of which recruit important regions of our brain and keep them active and ‘on their toes.'”

Here are some other ways to protect your brain.

Of course, exercise is hardly the only way to keep your brain sharp into old age. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, recommends several other strategies for keeping the brain healthy and strong.

“Get enough sleep,” she advises. “Fatigue can decrease your cognitive function. Make sure to manage your stress, too, as stress interferes with optimal mental function, and meditate—it helps improve your memory. I also recommend doing crossword puzzles, as they exercise the brain, and here’s a fun one: Wear your watch on the opposite hand. Doing new things helps boost brain activity. Last but not least, stop eating foods that increase inflammation, such as sugar: Inflammation interferes with optimal brain health.”

Long story short, exercise has a strong impact on the developing brain. So if you were a high school track star, the odds are likely stacked in your favor. But if not, try not to worry about it too much—there’s a lot you can do to take care of your mind as you age.

Interested in this topic? Read up on how yoga alters your DNA.

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