What Exercises Are Best for the Brain


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Today we are talking about the positive effects of different types of exercise on cognition and brain function from the perspective of a brain health coach. Whether you are a health coach, personal trainer, or simply looking to improve your brain health, you’re going to benefit greatly from this info.

“What type of exercise is best for my brain?“
“What does exercise do to my brain?”

I get questions like these quite often, so let’s explore.

Firstly, I highly suggest you read the book Spark by Dr. John Ratey, a psychiatrist that popularized the science on improving brain function, cognition, and brain structure using exercise (particularly aerobic exercise).

There’s good evidence supporting:

  • Resistance training
  • Coordination training
  • Dance training
  • Combined cognitive physical training (map training – mental and physical training)
  • Cognitive cross training (where you might perform a circuit of physical exercises, brain games, and learning exercises). 

Thus far, the most scientific evidence is on aerobic exercise.

Rule #1: Stay Active

Staying active is the most important thing for cognitive function and exercise.

It can be exercise itself or physical activity, but daily physical activity and exercise is the number one thing you need to be concerned about when it comes to improving cognitive function.

Executive Function

Exercising improves executive function, which is an umbrella term for all sorts of different mental processes including:

  • Working memory
  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Multi-tasking
  • Productivity
  • Focus

Your executive function will suffer if you don’t exercise, don’t move constantly throughout the day, have poor sleeping habits, eat a poor diet, and lack proper hydration.

Your attention, memory, ability to plan and organize, ability to regulate emotions and your memory will not be optimized. This can be very apparent by observing the evidence from your daily life.

So rule number one, stay active. Keep exercising and don’t overthink it. Just keep moving.

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Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve things like

  • Synaptogenesis
  • Neurogenesis
  • Synaptic protein expression
  • Hippocampus development (part of your brain responsible for learning and memory)

Synaptogenesis: the creation of new synapses and the efficiency of those synapses, which is essentially how quickly and efficiently you are transferring information.

Neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons in the brain. (the building blocks of the brain)

Synaptic protein expression: allows your brain to have more building blocks for growth and maintaining brain function/structure.

Hippocampus development: the hippocampus is a smaller area of your brain responsible for learning and memory and can actually grow in size.

There’s research showing that if you don’t exercise and if you don’t have healthy lifestyle habits, your brain can actually shrink in this area just like your body, if you don’t use it you’ll lose it.

Resistance Training

Resistance training does improve synaptic protein expression and appears to impact executive function and mental processes.

The evidence is fairly young for this form of exercise, but there’s a lot of strong evidence emerging that supports it.

The power of play, by Dr. Stuart Brown, shows that play (particularly through movement) is extremely beneficial to not just executive function and physical development, but also psychological development, social negotiation, emotion management, and the ability to interact with others.

I highly recommend adding play to your life if you haven’t already as it’s a great way to improve mental function, health, and overall happiness.

Things like dance that require a particular way of thinking through things like choreography have profound impacts on your mental function. This improves the area of the brain called the Cerebellum, which is responsible for coordination and gross body control.

It’s also linked to a lot of other mental functions in the brain. You can bolster the structure and function of that area through coordination based exercise.

Coordination-based exercise can help with things like anxiety and even Parkinson’s disease by improving the function of the Basal Ganglia.

People who have anxiety typically have a dysregulation of Basal Ganglia activity. Parkinson’s disease is referred to as a dopaminergic disease, which means the relationship between dopamine and the Basal Ganglia is not optimal.

Coordination-based training can help with a lot of those things and there is starting to be more emerging research supporting this topic.

Combining coordination exercise, flow-like, and mindful movement exercises like Tai Chi, Qigong, and Yoga with aerobic training and resistance training will have positive impacts on the brain.

All of the forms of exercises are great for improving brain function, but there’s starting to be more delineation between the unique effects of these different modalities.

Vectors by www.vecteezy.com

Variability of different exercise modalities is key to maintaining a rich, diverse set of benefits to the brain and body. Engage in a multitude of different modalities of exercise similar to eating a variety of different foods. Practice variety within a specific context as too much variety can hinder your ability to get the adaptation.

For example, if you are doing a specific style of dance, change the style of dance from time to time so that you tweak the modality within the modality (inception). If you’re doing a particular type of resistance training, mix it up and do different exercises with different sets and repetitions.

Maybe combined resistance training and coordination training together, which would be called loaded movement training.

You can also combine aerobic training, resistance training with a load, and some coordination training all in one and you have a pretty nice complex set of modalities for improving brain and bodily function.

Rule number one, stay active. Find consistency in staying active, but practice variability within your routine. Take it a step further and practice variability within the workouts and stack different modalities to improve brain function and structure.

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