Best Brain Training: Get Moving

Best Brain Training: Get Moving

For a rock-solid memory and razor-sharp brainpower, get up and move! A growing stack of research confirms that working your brain as if it were a core muscle keeps it younger and fitter. Exercise is good for your brain for a ton of reasons. One biggie: Getting active slashes stress, and taming tension is the single most important thing you can do to slow memory loss and sidestep fuzzy thinking. Stress hormones switch off parts of the hippocampus, a brain area involved with memory, reducing the ability to learn. Over time, high anxiety can tip over into depression, and that messes with memory.

These days, we’re excited about the stacks of new research that shows how exercise helps your brain:

  • Better blood flow. Exercise increases circulation in areas of the brain hit hardest by Alzheimer’s disease, says one new study from the University of Kentucky. Volunteers who were the most fit had the best blood flow to regions where Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles happen.
  • More connections. Getting active increases levels of a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF) that helps brain cells grow and connect. More connections boost brainpower. In a recent study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago of 525 older people, those with the most BDNF showed the smallest declines in mental prowess. This was true even for those with signs of Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that BDNF builds extra connections in the brain that may act as collateral pathways around diseased areas, allowing you to still find your keys, balance your checkbook and enjoy your life.
  • Less of brain “trash.” Movement helps your brain use more glutamate, an amino acid that helps neural pathways transmit signals. When excess glutamate piles up between cells, it creates tiny toxic waste dumps linked to a wide variety of brain disorders as well as to dementia. Researchers from Canada’s University of Guelph found that exercise can increase the amount of glutamate your brain uses, so there’s less trash mucking up things.

The best save-your-brain-plan combines exercise with: 1) other stress-soothing activities such as meditation, knitting, bowling with friends or listening to your favorite music; 2) a healthy eating plan that has you staying away from the Five Food Felons—most saturated and all trans fats, added sugars and sugar syrups, and any grain that isn’t 100 percent whole—and eating plenty of produce, whole grains and good fats like the omega-3s in salmon, wild trout and supplements containing—specifically—DHA omega-3. ALA omega-3 may also be beneficial for your eyes, joints and brain, and is found in food like walnuts and avocados.

DD Daily mental challenges such as learning a language, doing crosswords or Sudoku or other brain-stimulating mental gymnastics are also beneficial. Try these activities.

Yoga plus meditation. In a recent University of California Los Angeles study of 25 adults age 55 and older with mild memory problems, this combo was even better than brain-training games at improving memory and reducing depression. A weekly class plus 20-minutes of daily practice was all it took. Yoga can ease stress, reduce inflammation and encourage formation of new brain connections.

Gardening, dancing and other fun stuff. In a new University of Pittsburgh study, scans of the 876 volunteers revealed the more activity, the better for the brain. Everything from walking and gardening to dancing and going to the gym kept the brains of older adults bigger, reducing risk for Alzheimer’s by up to 50 percent. 

Aerobic exercise. In one recent lab study, aerobic activities—a long walk, pedaling your exercise bike while you watch the nightly news, a new class at the gym—bested strength training for stimulating growth of new cells in a brain area involved with learning and memory. In another study of 876 older adults, varying between moderate and intense exercise translated into faster thinking and keener memories. Their brains were comparatively 10 years younger than non-exercisers. 

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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