BOOSTING YOUR BRAIN POWER
with exercise By Dr Helena Popovic
There’s been an amazing new breakthrough in boosting our brain power, writes DR HELENA POPOVIC. Neuroscientists have discovered overed something that can raise oour IQ and radically improve academic ademica performance, mental stamina, mina,m memory, creativity, concentration, entration,e problem solving and learning ningn in all contexts.
This will halve our risk of getting dementia – including Alzheimer’s disease – and builds “cognitive reserve” so that we remain as sharp at 90 years as we were at 30. The remarkable remedy enhances mood and is more ef fective than Prozac and Zolof t in the treatment of depression. And did I mention that it also boosts your sex life? And if everyone in New Zealand took it up, it would save the economy over one billion dollars a year. What is it? Physical exercise. But that’s nothing new! Everyone knows that exercise strengthens the immune system, protects against stroke and heart attack, prevents type two diabetes, lowers the risk of cancer, keeps our bones strong, dissipates stress and helps us get a good night’s sleep. What’s new is the discover y that physical exercise not only builds up our muscles, it builds up our brain!
Exercise is critical to our overall mental health, mood regulation, stress management and executive (higher order) brain func tions such as critical thinking, decision-making and flexibility of thought.
When we move our body, we make proteins that are carried in the bloodstream to the brain, where they induce the growth of new brain cells. One of these brain-boosting substances is
called brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF) and it’s like a fertiliser for neurons. BDNF not only promotes the formation of new brain cells, it also stimulates the creation of more connections between brain cells and this means more innovative thinking and better overall brain performance. And the more we exercise, the more BDNF we produce – at any age or stage of life.
Another effec t of exercise is that we produce a cocktail of chemicals called neurotransmitters that increase our ability to focus, think clearly and process information. The brain works at its absolute best in the first hour after we engage in any sort of physical activity. So before an important meeting, job inter view, study session, exam or Ikea furniture assembly, get moving for 20 minutes and you’ll perform measurably better.
In 2007, a German study found people learn vocabulary words 20 per cent faster after 20 minutes of exercise. In 2004, researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University in England recorded that workers who used their company’s gym at lunch time for 30 to 60 minutes – doing an aerobic workout or resistance training – were more productive and felt better able to handle their workloads. On the days they exercised, participants reported managing their time more effectively, reaching deadlines more easily, interacting better with colleagues and feeling less stressed and more energetic, despite expending energy at lunchtime.
A Japanese study found that after participating in a 12-week exercise programme, people performed significantly better in problem-solving tests. Even after a single 30-minute exercise session, people are able to think more creatively.
In relation to memory, exercise increases blood flow to a region of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory formation) called the dentate gyrus. The more you exercise, the bigger your dentate gyrus and the better your memory.
The most enjoyable impact of exercise on the brain is that after just 10 to 12 minutes, we begin to release feel good chemicals: serotonin, endorphins, noradrenalin, dopamine and oxytocin. These chemicals not only make us feel great, we think and learn better. So if you’re feeling mentally stuck or in a bad mood, move for 12 minutes and the cloud will lift. You’ll feel happier and you’ll think more effec tively.
Researchers from Duke University made the New York Times with a study showing that aerobic exercise and resistance training were better than Prozac and Zoloft at treating depression. These findings have been replicated in many subsequent studies. In an inner city school in Iowa, the introduction of daily exercise instead of just a couple of physical education classes a week reduced disciplinar y problems by 67 per cent over the course of a year.
Another compelling reason to move our bodies is that exercise strengthens our ability to resist temptation by rewiring our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that controls impulsive behaviour. A study by the University of Exeter found that taking a walk reduced chocolate cravings. Even in the most stressful situations, a 15-minute walk could cut chocolate snacking by half!
And what about the better sex I promised at the star t of this article? Harvard University researchers found that men who exercised vigorously for 30 to 60 minutes two to three times a week were half as likely to have erection problems as sedentary men. And women with stronger core muscles are more likely to experience orgasms.
One question remains – what’s the best physical exercise we can do to boost our brain power?
Neuroscientists are still figuring out the answer, but the bottom line is that any exercise is better than no exercise. Exercise that you enjoy and that you’ll keep up on a regular basis is more beneficial than exercise you force yourself to do. Exercise in company has the added benefit of social stimulation – another brain booster in its own right.
Martial ar ts are particularly helpful for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as are ballet, figure skating, gymnastics, rock climbing and skateboarding. Dancing and sports involving new skill acquisition are excellent. Anything that requires balance, co-ordination and the use of all four limbs is a bonus. And it’s important to include resistance training to aid blood sugar regulation and to stabilise brain chemistry. But even a humble stroll through your neighbourhood will improve alertness, cognition and long-term brain health.
Dr Helena Popovic . . . “If everyone in New Zealand took up physical exercise, it would save the economy over one billion dollars a year.