When we take up exercise and eat healthier, we are often driven by improving our bodies: losing the extra kilos, or improving flexibility. We hardly think about the beneficial effects of physical activity and what we eat on our brains – and I don’t mean only for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Regular cardio exercise (30 minutes 3-4 times a week) along with the incorporation of memory boosting food will not only elevate your mood but will, essentially, make you smarter.
Your brain likes you to move it, move it
Researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and sweat glands pumping, appears to boost an area of the brain called the hippocampus (responsible for verbal memory and learning). And if you’re wondering if resistance training has the same effect, the answer is no.
Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The direct benefits of exercise come from its ability to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation. Simultaneously, exercise stimulates the release of certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.
Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep which reduces stress and anxiety. As you may well have experienced in your own life, when you are stressed, eating poorly and in a bad mood, your “thinking” work suffers.
Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. This means we can increase our brain capacity in areas that are responsible for rational thinking and ideas by simply exerting ourselves to the point that our heart rate increases and causes us to break a sweat.
Here are some of the neurological benefits of physical activity:
- Decreased stress
- Decreased social anxiety
- Improved processing and managing emotions
- Prevention of neurological conditions (such as dementia)
- Euphoria (short-term)
- Increased energy, focus and attention
- Hinders the aging process
- Improved memory
- Improved blood circulation
- Decreased ‘brain fog’
If you are looking to target and enhance a specific element of brain health through exercise, the following list may come in handy:
- For brain fog and concentration: Yoga, tai chi, aerobic classes;
- For memory: aerobics, walking, and cycling;
- To improve blood circulation: cardio activities (walking, riding a bicycle, running, swimming, kickboxing, skipping rope and skiing);
- For stress and anxiety: yoga;
- And for depression: aerobic and resistance training.
Watch this inspiring and info-packed TED Talk.
Human beings are not genetically programmed to live in a state of idleness and lethargy. And if we do, our brains pay a high price, both in the short and long term. Although exercise is not a cure for degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimers, a brain that gets consistent cardio will take longer to be affected.
Don’t feed your brain junk (food or media)
*These are simple guidelines based on common knowledge and not professional nutritional advice. I also respect the fact that people subscribe to different eating philosophies. Please feel encouraged to find your own suitable replacement for anything mentioned below which does not align with your personal dietary requirements.
Along with exercise, and as important, is nutrition.
Good Fat. The good fats found in nuts, oily fish such as salmon and avocados. Examples of oily fish that contain high levels of omega-3s include:
People can also get omega-3s from soybeans, nuts, flaxseed, and other seeds.
Dark Chocolate and Berries. Dark chocolate contains cocoa (try 85% Lindt), also known as cacao. Cacao contains flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants are especially important for brain health, as the brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline and brain diseases. Much the same with berries which are also rich in antioxidants. Antioxidant-rich berries that can boost brain health include:
Coffee. The real deal, not chickory. The caffeine in coffee blocks a substance in the brain called adenosine, which makes a person feel sleepy. The researchers found that caffeine causes an increase in brain entropy, which refers to complex and variable brain activity. When entropy is high, the brain can process more information. Caffeine can, however, affect a person’s sleep and doctors do not recommend caffeine consumption for everyone.
Peanuts. Peanuts are a legume with an excellent nutritional profile. They contain plenty of unsaturated fats and protein to keep a person’s energy levels up throughout the day. Peanuts also provide key vitamins and minerals to keep the brain healthy, including high levels of vitamin E and resveratrol.
Resveratrol is a natural non-flavonoid antioxidant found in peanuts, mulberries, and rhubarb. Evidence from a review article suggests that resveratrol can have protective effects, such as helping to prevent cancers, inflammation, and neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Brocolli. Broccoli is rich in compounds called glucosinolates. When the body breaks these down, they produce isothiocyanates which reduces oxidative stress and lowers the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Other cruciferous vegetables that contain glucosinolates include:
- brussels sprouts
- bok choy
Eggs. Enjoyed by many for breakfast, eggs can be effective brain food. They are a good source of the following B vitamins:
- vitamin B-6
- vitamin B-12
- folic acid
Recent research suggests that these vitamins may prevent brain shrinkage and delay cognitive decline.
While we often actively address and start correcting our levels of physical activity and eating habits to improve our overall well being and our academic performance, I think most of us overlook what we feed our minds in terms of media as well as social media. How bad can it be to scroll through Instagram 20 times a day? READ this article for a detailed explanation of why our response to social media could damage our brains. In a nutshell, it triggers chemical releases that affect us negatively. Remember: if you feed your mind candy floss all day, every day – you can’t expect it to be quick and smart, can you?