Anxiety and depression have reached an all-time high in the United States and around the world. Deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia have grown by over 150% in the last decade. This has led to the question--
What’s causing this unprecedented surge and what steps can we take in our lives and the lives of our loved ones to help stop it in its tracks?
Scientists might have an answer that’s as old as time…
The effects of exercise on the brain are nothing short of amazing. If we had a pill that does as much for our bodies and minds as exercise, it would be hailed as a miracle.
Seriously..the drug companies would be fighting tooth and nail to be the first to register it under their brand and then charge and arm and a leg to consumers desperate for help.
It would save lives, keep us heart healthy, build our muscles and bone density, and start to unlock our brain health.
Here’s the thing though…we don’t need a pill. We have what we need within our bodies right now.
In this article were going to get to show you how to unlock your brain’s full potential through something as simple as ….exercise.
Exercise, The Bodies Little Magic Pill: How does regular exercise impact the brain?
Exercise, The Bodies Little Magic Pill: How does regular exercise impact the brain?
Scientists have shown that regular exercise can help:Reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and prevent dementia,Reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression,Reduce systemic inflammation,Reduce stress and help the body adapt to it,Improve memory and response time.
These are just a fraction of it’s benefits. Exercise touches every aspect of your cognitive function.**
One of the biggest benefits of exercise is the change to your hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing.
When you exercise, your brain produces a hormone known as brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF.*
BDNF has been hailed as ‘miracle grow for the brain’. It’s one of the growth hormones that helps grow new brain cells.
With consistent exercise the part of your brain that grows the most is your hippocampus, enhancing your memory and allowing you to deal with stress in more effective ways.
Exercise & Movement Is Easier Than You Think: What Experts Mean When They Say "Exercise"
Is there a certain form of exercise that will help your brain the most?
What do experts mean when they say regular exercise?
How much should you exercise?
To get the benefits of exercise for brain health studies show that you need a minimum of 120 minutes or 2 hours of moderate exercise per week. We’ll get into what we mean by ‘moderate’ a bit later.
If you want to exercise for two hours be my guest, but it’s not necessary. You don’t have to get it in all at once. You can break your exercise into 20 minute chunks of time and still receive the same benefit.
Study participants showed the most significant raise in BDNF levels with 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, 40 minutes of vigorous exercise, and 40 minutes of moderate exercise.***
Basically if you want to do 20 minutes, you would do a higher intensity level of exercise than if you wanted to do 40 minutes of a more moderate level of exercise.
The key to making exercise work for brain health is the intensity of the exercise. So moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise is what triggers BDNF production.
Moderate exercise is keeping your heart rate above 50% (up to 70%) of your maximum heart rate.
High intensity exercise is getting your heart rate above 70%, (up to 85%) of your maximum heart rate.
For someone who is 20 years old, their target heart rate might be 100 (50% of Maximum heart rate) to 170 bpm (85% of Maximum heart rate). Someone who is 55 or 60 years old only needs to get their heart rate above 80 bpm to yield great benefits from exercise for their brain.
The Exercises That Give Your Brain The Biggest Boost: What exercise is best for your brain?
You’re about to learn the exercises that give your brain the biggest boost and what type of exercise is best for brain health.
The thing to remember is: Exercises that are best for your heart are also the best to improve your brain health.
Aerobic means “an activity which increases the body's demand for oxygen thereby resulting in marked temporary increase in respiration and heart rate.”
Aerobic Exercise is the best exercise for your heart. Examples include: walking, jogging, running, swimming, or biking. They’re excellent for improving your brain’s health, your heart health, and your physical fitness all at the same time.
Resistance training (Lifting Weights)
Resistance training, as we stated above, like lifting weights, is most beneficial if you consistently get your heart rate elevated. So circuit training, or doing a lot of weighted exercises in a row, can get your heart rate up there and get it elevated.
If you don’t get your heart rate elevated, then you won’t get the benefits of brain-growth hormones like BDNF.
With any resistance training, you will get benefits like being less prone to depression and better able to deal with stress.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High intensity interval training, or HIIT exercise is also an excellent way to improve your brain and heart health. It involves getting your heart rate really high for a short period of time, and then resting until it drops just below a moderate level.
The keyword here is ‘High Intensity’. This means your heart rate is hitting that 70-85% of your maximum heart rate. HIIT is excellent for all parts of your body, but it takes a lot of effort.
Low impact exercise
For low impact exercise, like a casual stroll in the park, the evidence shows it’s not really going to help your brain or your heart get healthy. All movement and socialization is good for you but when talking about raising BDNF levels, it’s not the best.
Again the key to brain health is getting your heart rate up so you can get more blood flow and more oxygen to your brain, allowing your brain to produce new neurons and make new connections. However there are a few you exceptions.
Yoga and Tai Chi
Yoga and tai chi are mainly practices from India and China. They both focus on being very mindful, which has shown to promote brain growth and mental health. They also focus on stretching as you’re moving.
Perhaps the reason that these non aerobic activities increase BDNF is because of the reaction of the brain in a meditative state.
During meditation, the prefrontal cortex basically leaves the building. All of the things causing distractions, stress, fear, anger etc. go with it, leaving a calm, peaceful focused mind.
One of the other benefits of yoga and tai chi for brain health is that they’re often done in a social environment. Consistent social interaction promotes brain health, so go call your friends and plan a night out…or a morning Tai Chi session followed by a some good gossip.
Other ways to get healthy and get your exercise in could be taking a dance class, learning ballroom dance, tango, or lindy-hop can be a fun, exciting way to give your brain a big boost.
WHEN Matters: When To Work Out For Your Brain And Body
The best time to work out is a time that you will stick to. Studies show that the most important thing with using exercise to improve your brain health is consistency.
So, the goal really isn’t to get 120 minutes of exercise every week. The goal is to build an exercise habit that you can grow into that 120 minutes per week (more on that in the next section).
If you have established exercise habits, then stick to those if they’re working for you. If you’ve struggled in the past to establish an exercise habit, Dr Michael J. Breus might be able to help.
In Dr. Michael J. Breus’ book, “The Power Of When”, he shows when you should take on certain tasks based on your chronotype.
What the heck is a chronotype?
Your chronotype is your body’s natural rhythm for when you want to go to sleep, wake up, focus, relax, etc. You’re probably already familiar with a few of them.
Night owls (or wolves as Dr Breus calls them) might get their best exercise at a different time than an early bird (or lions). So before deciding if that 6:30 AM yoga class is right for you, take a few moments and have a quick read.
Dr. Breus identified four chronotypes.
- Lions, who are those early birds among us.
- Bears are the middle of the road types (most people are this chronotype).
- Wolves, those who are at their best in the evening
- Dolphins, those of us who have inconsistent sleeping patterns or are light sleepers.
These chronotypes impact every part of your biological rhythm, including when you’ll perform the best physically (and reap the most benefit).
The best time to run
- Lions: 5:30 p.m. Despite the desire to jump out of bed and hunt down an antelope, lions might benefit the most from a late-afternoon run. Despite it not being their “optimal” time for performance, it will bring a welcome boost of energy to carry them into the evening.
- Dolphins: 7:30 a.m. Morning runs have been shown to help people get a deeper sleep, and feel less stress throughout the day than any other time. Light sleepers might greatly benefit from having a morning run.
- Bears: 7:30 a.m. or noon. Another benefit of the early morning run is that it helps take advantage of our body’s enhanced ability to burn fat before breakfast.
- Bears are at peak performance mid-day. A mid-day run has also been shown to reduce appetite. For bears, their appetite will peak around the afternoon, and exercise might help stave off the cravings.
- Wolves: 6 p.m. Wolves feed at night, and late-night humans are no different. This is also the time when wolves are at their peak performance. An early evening run can help wolves reduce their appetite at night, while giving them an opportunity to burn through some of the day’s left over calories.
The best time to for Yoga or Tai Chi?
- Dolphins: 10 p.m. After a stressful day, nighttime yoga will help lower cortisol and blood pressure to help the light sleeper have a deeper slumber.
- Lions: 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. For lions, Yoga or Tai Chi is excellent either before facing the stress of the day, to prepare your mind and body to be at your best, or after work, to relax and unwind.
- Bears: Noon or 6 p.m. For bears, Yoga can provide a great boost to their metabolism, and let them relax enough to properly digest food. So before lunch, or before dinner is an excellent time.
- Wolves: 6 p.m. or 10 p.m. Late night yoga, either to relax before bed, or to prepare your body for dinner is great for the wolves among us.
The best times to strength train:
The best time to strength train depends on when you’ll get your best performance, and at your lowest risk of injury.
For the brain, it’s about how high you can keep your heart rate while lifting weights, so you’ll need to be at your physical peak for the day.
- For Dolphins this comes at around 8 p.m.
- For Lions 2:30–5 p.m. is a good range.
- For Bears: 4–7 p.m. will let you lift your best, while avoiding injury.
- And for the Wolves among us, 6–7 p.m. is an excellent window.
Make An Ironclad Exercise Habit
I mentioned that the best time to exercise is the one that you will stick to. A single workout session might improve your brain health a bit.
However, is the cumulative effects of months and years of physical training that dramatically improves your brain health.
The exercise habit formula
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear details a four-step process that you go through for every habit that you have in your life, including your exercise (or lack of exercise) habits.
- Trigger - this is how you know that the habit should be performed.
- Craving - this is what motivates you to perform the habit.
- Process - this is what you do when you’re performing the habit.
- Reward - this is what will get you to do to have it again.
Defining these four steps for your exercise habit can help break through your inertia, and stick to your workout, even when the going gets tough.
Here’s what that might look like:
- Trigger - “I’ve been working for an hour”
- Craving - “My focus is waning and I need to feel energized”
- Process - “Do a 15 minute yoga routine”
- Reward - “Smile, feeling loose, energized and renewed”
Or it might look like this
- Trigger - “I’m done with work”
- Craving - “I need to work off the stress from today”
- Process - “Stop by the gym and do my workout”
- Reward - “Take a relaxing shower”
The key to creating a habit is to make it obvious (Trigger) when you should perform your habit, make it attractive (Crave doing it) to do so, make it easy (Process), and make it rewarding.
Make It Obvious When You Should Exercise
Choosing a time or preceding action to perform your exercise routine will help make it obvious.
Writing this down as a simple commitment statement will help with this.
We’ll discuss commitment statements at the end of this guide.
Make It Attractive To Exercise
What will make you want this more than any other obligations or options you have in front of you?
Doing group exercises can help activate our social nature and make us feel more positive about exercising.
Also, doing something we love doing can help us establish a routine that makes us miss it when we’re not doing it.
For example, hiking in nature, and surfing are both great exercises that a lot of people find very enjoyable.
Make Your Workout Routine Easy
One way to make things easy is to make them very small.
For example: For the first 3 weeks, just show up to the gym and be there for 15 minutes or, just get your running shoes & clothes on, exit the door and jog down the driveway and back.
Do 1 push-up or squat or downward dog at your desk after 1 hour of work.
These aren’t workouts, they’re a commitment to long-term healthy behaviors.
These commitments help build habits that will start to grow once you can do them while barely thinking.
Make Exercise Rewarding
There’s a few ways to make things more rewarding. An easy way is what James Clear called Temptation Bundling.
For example: For the first 3 weeks, immediately after every “workout” session, have a small, healthy treat.
A square of good dark chocolate, or another small treat. Or call someone you love talking to.
Or listen to your favorite podcasts while you’re working out at the gym. Treat yourself at the end of the week to a good massage.
Alternatively, you can do something that’s necessary, and inherently rewarding. After a workout, when you go to shower, take a minute to genuinely enjoy and relax while the hot water hits you.
Or you can focus on a positive feeling that you get from your workout. For instance, feeling your muscles enlarge, or feeling a good stretch while you’re doing yoga, or relax after tai chi.
Creating Your Brain Boosting Exercise Routine Blueprint
It’s time to create your body-brain boosting blueprint, your ultimate tool to improve your brain health through exercise.
Step 1: What type of exercise fits your activity level?
- Aerobic Exercise (Walking, jogging, running, biking, etc)
- Resistance Training (specifically circuit training)
- Yoga or Tai Chi
- Group classes (Belly dancing, ballroom dancing, spinning, Zumba, etc)
Step 2: Who can help keep you accountable/join you in your new exercise?
- Do you know people who go running regularly?
- Do you know people who go to the gym regularly?
- Do you know anyone who’s just starting out and could use an accountability partner?
- Could you post to Facebook, or another social network about your intentions?
- Could you join a class?
- Put these people on a list of potential accountability partners to help you start your exercise habits. Share this article with them to help them understand what you will accomplish.
Step 3: When and where are you going to exercise?
- Are you going to do it at work? At the park? At a gym? At home?
- When are you going to do it? Do you know what’s the best time for you? What time is best for your schedule?
- Write down these answers and keep them in front of you until they become automatic. If you find that something doesn’t work, adjust your answers.
Step 4: What small fitness commitment are you going to make for the first 4 weeks?
- Are you going for Yoga or Tai Chi? Could you take a 15 minute beginner’s yoga class?
- Are you going for resistance training? Could you do 1 pushup at the gym 1 days a week?
- Are you going for aerobic exercise? Could you go to the pool 3 days a week? Could you lace up your sneakers and go for a 60 second run?
Step 5(Bonus): What action can you take that will make it PAINFUL to NOT keep your exercise routine? What can you do to make it EASIER to do so?
Have you ever done something for way too long because you’re already really invested in it? This is called “Sunk Cost”. It’s a trick our brains play on us, because what we put in makes it feel like we’re going to lose something if we quit.
You can use this trick to get you to trick yourself into having greater commitment to your exercise routine.
- Could you sign up for a gym membership and pay for a year in advance & a personal trainer (and rip out the part of the contract that talks about refunds)?
- Could you make a bet with a friend that if you don’t hit your (really small) exercise goals, at specific times, you’ll pay them $10 (Or $100 if you’re really serious)?
- Could you make an embarrassing video and instruct your accountability partner to post it to Facebook if you miss a day at the gym?
You can also take singular actions that make your exercise routine easier. For example:
- Set up alarms on your phone to remind you when to work out
- Install plugins in your browser that interrupt you once an hour, reminding you to get in 5 minutes of movement
- Getting a dedicated set of workout gear or a bicycle or exercise bands.
- Getting a gym membership
- Moving your alarm clock to where you store your running shoes
Now you have your brain-boosting exercise blueprint. I hope you’ve enjoyed this definitive guide to how exercise impacts the brain and how you can get the most out of it!
In the comments, let us know any questions you have, so we can keep expanding and improving this guide.
*Schmolesky MT, Webb DL, Hansen RA. The effects of aerobic exercise intensity and duration on levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in healthy men.J Sports Sci Med. 2013;12(3):502-511. Published 2013 Sep 1.At very end of article and before About the Author, please add these citations
**Lin T-W, KuoY-M. Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection.Brain Sciences. 2013; 3(1):39-53. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci3010039
***Cotman, Carl W.; Engesser-Cesar, ChristieExercise Enhances and Protects Brain Function, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: April 2002