Train your brain: exercise and brain health

Monday, 6 May 2019

We all know that exercise is great for our bodies – it can help us become fitter, stronger and generally healthier. But did you know that it can also improve your brain power? There is a growing body of evidence that indicates regular exercise not only improves cognitive function, but also helps safeguard us against conditions such as dementia and age-related cognitive decline.

Avoid a sedentary lifestyle

Research shows that people who spend between three and 15 hours a day sitting typically have less brain volume in the area that is associated with memory and thinking (called the Hippocampus). In many ways prolonged sitting can be likened to smoking in terms of the negative impact on our health.

This information further adds to our understanding that being sedentary, or getting little movement throughout the day, is bad for our health and may lead to a more rapid decline in your memory.

Exercise for brain power

Exercise is thought to benefit our brain health for a number of reasons. We know that the brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients in order to function effectively. Exercise is a great way of effectively ‘feeding’ the blood vessels in our brain with nutrient-rich blood due to the effects it has on circulation.

Exercise can also make our brains bigger! Aerobic exercise, in particular, has been shown to lead to the growth of new brain cells (called neurons). This can increase our overall brain volume – particularly in the hippocampus. This area of the brain plays an important role with memory and learning.

Some other benefits include:

Lowers your risk of dementia – regular physical activity at all stages of life has be shown to lower your risk of dementia and slow the process of cognitive decline that occurs as we age. In fact, there is strong correlations between someone’s cardiorespiratory fitness and their ability to carry out cognitive tasks.

Enhances memory – we know that our memory can become a bit more foggy as we get older, or even when we are younger! Exercise has been shown to help boost our memory through helping preserve our existing brain cells, as well as promoting growth of new brain cells in areas of the brain that we use for memory.

Helps with learning – research has shown that exercising after learning something new can help you retain this new information or skill in your long-term memory.

Boosts your mood – exercise is also effective in boosting the amount of “feel good” hormones that are released by our brain such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. This not only leaves you feeling great, it can also help in managing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

What exercise is best for brain health?

Essentially any form of exercise that is good for your heart, will also benefit your brain!

  • Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling and swimming are great for brain and heart health.
  • Try and exercise at an intensity that is somewhat challenging (moderate) or enough to elevate your breathing rate slightly. This has been shown to offer more benefits in terms of our health.
  • Add variety to your exercise. Mix up your routine and try and incorporate activities that challenge coordination and cardiovascular fitness at the same time, such as dancing or an aerobics class.
  • Try and include a combination of different exercise types such as aerobic and strength-based exercise. Including both exercise modes has been shown to be more beneficial in improving cognitive function and overall diabetes management.
  • Stay active both physically and mentally throughout the day. Try and challenge yourself by including activities that are new, complex and outside your normal routine. This could be as simple as switching to your non-dominant hand for tasks around the house, walking a different route to the shops, taking up a creative hobby or trying to learn a new skill (learning an instrument, gardening, creative writing). There are a host of resources you can access online as well. Here is an example you might like to try – Free cognitive activities

Having trouble getting physically active? Why not try one of our programs at Diabetes NSW & ACT!

Many people find starting exercise challenging or confusing.

How much exercise is enough?

What kind of exercise is suitable for me?

How do I get started? 

These are all common questions when trying to make exercise a regular habit.

This is why Diabetes NSW & ACT has designed the Ready, Set, Go Let’s Move workshop and BEAT IT exercise program. If you are registered with NDSS these programs are FREE for you to attend.

Ready, Set, Go Let’s Move is a workshop designed to empower you to take the first step in making exercise a part of your routine. This session lasts 3 hours and you will learn about the positive effects exercise can have on blood glucose levels and have assistance in identifying what could be stopping you from being more active.

Following attendance at this workshop, many people choose to then attend the BEAT IT exercise program.

BEAT IT is an eight-week exercise and lifestyle program designed for people living with diabetes. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist guides you through the program, including an initial one-on-one consultation to ensure the exercises are individualised to meet your goals and needs.

Exercise sessions are held twice a week for one-hour and involve moderate intensity aerobic, strength and balance based exercises as well as education sessions on healthy living topics. Groups consist of 10-15 people who are working towards similar goals of improving health, fitness and overall diabetes management.

A recent study of BEAT IT program results from across NSW and ACT showed that people participating in the BEAT IT program were able to reduce their waist circumference and significantly improve their aerobic fitness, strength, balance, flexibility and mental wellbeing.

If you are interested in joining one of our upcoming programs please visit the Diabetes NSW & ACT website or call us on 1300 136 588.

You don’t need to be an athlete, you just need to move a little more than you did yesterday.

Join our community of over 45,000 people living with diabetes