If you want to stretch your brain, enhance your ability to think and make decisions and save your memory, what types of physical exercises are best? Researchers at the University of South Australia think they have an answer for you.
Why stretch your brain?
Memory problems and difficulties making decisions or concentrating are common as we get older. Sometimes people refer to these challenges as brain fog, and they can be especially bothersome beginning with perimenopause up through post-menopause, when widely variable fluctuations in hormone levels occur and can throw your brain into a tizzy.
Is it possible to beat this problem? A number of studies have shown that physical exercise is very beneficial for the brain on many levels. Not only does physical activity improve blood flow to the brain; it can also have a positive impact on spatial learning, memory, and cognitive functions such as decision making, problem-solving, reasoning, and paying attention.
Honing these skills is important as we get older so we can remain independent and active as long as possible. So what types of physical exercise can help us get there?
How to exercise for your brain
The South Australian study found that the exercises that delivered the best mental benefits were high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and continuous moderate exercise rather than sustained strenuous or vigorous exercise. Here’s how the investigators came to this conclusion.
The authors conducted several experiments with 128 individuals who had their brains monitored after they completed one session of aerobic exercise on a treadmill and stationary bike. The experiments covered low-intensity continuous exercise to high-intensity interval exercise.
Here’s the good news for those who don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes exercising: the greatest changes in the brain’s ability to modify its neural connections happened within 20 minutes when they participated in interval training and within 25 minutes of continuous moderate aerobic exercise.
It appears your brain wants you to work…but not super hard…to help keep it functioning at its best. According to Dr. Ashleigh Smith, who headed the study, one major deciding factor in which exercise is best for your brain is the level of the stress hormone cortisol. If you exercise too vigorously—for example, you cycle full speed without changing up your tempo–you end up with high cortisol levels, which in turn block healthy neuroplastic responses. However, if you do interval training or don’t overly stress your body, cortisol levels can return to normal levels.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to keep changing and rewiring itself throughout a person’s lifetime. Without neuroplasticity, your brain would be unable to develop from infancy to adulthood or to repair itself after injury or trauma.
Dr. Smith explains that the brain’s many neural (nerve) pathways can pitch hit if the organ experiences trauma. “If the brain is damaged it can re-route signals along a different pathway. The more elastic the brain, the easier that is.”
Dr. Smith’s Ph.D. student Maddison Mellow, who also was part of the study, noted that “long-term studies demonstrate that people who engage in regular exercise show greater neural connectivity than those who are sedentary.” It’s also been shown that people who exercise before they learn a new motor skill are able to learn that task much faster.
The best types of exercise for your brain appear to be high-intensity interval training or continuous moderate activity rather than going all-out. If you are entering perimenopause or you are already moving past that stage, it seems to be a great time to try your hand—and feet—at one or both types of exercise. So grab a friend, turn up the music, join a class, cue up a video, and get into the game to save your brain!