BRAIN TRAIN­ING

You squat for your bum and plank for your core – now, emerg­ing re­search and new classes are show­ing these same moves could both boost your brain­power and calm a rac­ing mind ‘AER­O­BIC EX­ER­CISE IS PROVEN TO PRO­TECT THE BRAIN FROM DAM­AGE’

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Ex­er­cise that boosts your mind as well as your body

Speak to any sea­soned fit­ness fan and they’ll no doubt reel off the man­ner in which they pre­fer to put the dif­fer­ent parts of their body through their paces. Ab blast, 60-minute arms, glutes Tues­day (no? Just us?). Or, the Shangri-la of fit­ness: the full body work­out. But while the more tra­di­tional ses­sions en­sure your mus­cu­lar and car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tems get a good go­ing-over, there’s every like­li­hood there’s one body part you’re not ac­tively try­ing to shape up – your nog­gin. New re­search pub­lished in Brain Plas­tic­ity shows the pos­i­tive neu­ro­log­i­cal ef­fects of ex­er­cise go be­yond post-work­out en­dor­phins; that while your aim might be six-packs and pull-ups, the most con­sis­tent ef­fects of aer­o­bic ex­er­cise are bet­ter mood, less stress and en­hanced mem­ory and in­tel­li­gence. ‘Aer­o­bic ex­er­cise is proven to pro­tect the brain from dam­age and pro­duce brand new cells in the hip­pocam­pus, thep­art of the brain that deals with mem­ory and emo­tions, which com­monly be­comes dam­aged due to age and dis­ease,’ says Dr Wendy A. Suzuki, the au­thor of the study and pro­fes­sor of neu­ral science and psy­chol­ogy at the Cen­ter for Neu­ral Science at New York Univer­sity. Head­strong at Equinox in Lon­don is a full-body work­out fo­cus­ing on strength, car­dio and re­gen­er­a­tion, which it claims pro­motes mind­ful­ness and the brain’s abil­ity to re­pair it­self, as well as torch­ing calo­ries. ‘A big part of the Head­strong con­cept is en­cour­ag­ing the re­lease of brain-de­rived neu­rotrophic fac­tor (BDNF), which oc­curs nat­u­rally in the brain and en­cour­ages cell growth,’ says Michael Ger­vais, a se­nior man­ager at Equinox. But what sets this apart from 45 min­utes on the tread­mill? ‘Two fac­tors stim­u­late the re­lease of BDNF: in­ten­sity, which can be mea­sured by heart rate, and com­plex­ity of rou­tine. The willpower sec­tion is the most in­tense part of the class where we in­tend to push you past your thresh­olds by con­fus­ing mind and body,’ says Ger­vais. ‘Your body has a safety net when you’re work­ing out to pre­vent you go­ing too far and harm­ing your­self by com­pletely emp­ty­ing your en­ergy tank – it’s known as the cen­tral gov­er­nor the­ory. But, gen­er­ally, the dan­ger is all in your mind, and you can safely push fur­ther than you re­alise. Our trick is not to tell you how long you have to do the ex­er­cise. When you don’t know how long a set of burpees or a plank will last, this con­fu­sion helps over­ride your in­stinct, so you can ex­er­cise more than you’re used to by us­ing the pre­frontal cor­tex or “willpower” part of the brain.’ ‘Ex­er­cise that chal­lenges you men­tally is proven to cre­ate new mo­tor path­ways in the brain,’ says Dr Suzuki. ‘In­creased lev­els of BDNF in the pre­frontal cor­tex boost fo­cus and at­ten­tion.’ In fact, a study by the US Air Force Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory re­vealed that agility train­ing, which requires you to change di­rec­tion or speed at short no­tice, can im­prove your cog­ni­tive per­for­mance by stim­u­lat­ing richer con­nec­tions in the brain.

is method to this on-the-mat mad­ness after all. In­deed, ac­cord­ing to The Jour­nal Of Clin­i­cal And Di­ag­nos­tic Re­search, chang­ing the way you breathe can kick-start your ner­vous sys­tem, which slows your heart rate and in­creases gland ac­tiv­ity, help­ing you feel calmer and more bal­anced after a work­out. More and more classes are es­chew­ing the go hard or go home men­tal­ity in favour of blend­ing fit­ness moves and men­tal ex­er­cises. ‘We don’t want peo­ple to leave our classes pumped full of adren­a­line and stress hor­mones like cor­ti­sol, so we com­bine high-in­ten­sity train­ing with mind­ful­ness prac­tice,’ says Ali­son Hatcher of Stu­dio One in Is­ling­ton, where The Method helps their clients bal­ance their mood and al­le­vi­ate the stress lev­els that most of us ac­cept as part of the way we live our lives to­day. So, is there any truth in the mind­ful­ness as­pect of your work­out boost­ing your brain? Re­search in Fron­tiers Of Hu­man Neu­ro­science says yes. Fo­cus­ing on bod­ily sen­sa­tions, such as ‘how does my calf mus­cle feel?’ dur­ing a body scan (where you check in and no­tice sen­sa­tions in each body part) can in­crease gen­eral con­cen­tra­tion lev­els by strength­en­ing the way the brain pro­cesses in­for­ma­tion. ‘It’s called the But this shift from ex­er­cis­ing for mind as well as body isn’t all about surprise sweat drills. The Derose Method is a holis­tic prac­tice that draws on breath­ing, asanas and med­i­ta­tion in or­der to boost con­cen­tra­tion and main­tain men­tal bal­ance. While some pos­tures may feel fa­mil­iar to yo­gis, Paulo Paci­fici, founder of the Derose Method stu­dio in Lon­don’s Soho, ar­gues that classes de­liver much more than sun sa­lu­ta­tions; the Brazil­ian move­ment is more about sus­tained fo­cus on the body’s ac­tions and strength in every move­ment. ‘The tech­niques we use in­crease oxy­gen­rich blood flow to the brain,’ says Paci­fici – which, says science, is as­so­ci­ated with bet­ter at­ten­tion and men­tal fo­cus.’ So there sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio,’ says Ger­vais. ‘This level of con­cen­tra­tion helps you drown out back­ground noise so you learn to recog­nise what’s most im­por­tant dur­ing and out­side a work­out.’ Un­til there’s a na­tion­wide col­lec­tive jump on to the mind­ful fit­ness band­wagon, what can the av­er­age ex­er­ciser do? Dr Suzuki’s pre­scrip­tion is sim­ple: in­crease your heart rate on a reg­u­lar ba­sis – her study showed that this can make a dif­fer­ence both im­me­di­ately and in the long run – and fol­low this with breath work and a body scan within each work­out that you do. ‘I’d rec­om­mend do­ing this once a week if you don’t cur­rently ex­er­cise reg­u­larly, and up to three ses­sions per week if you’re a more sea­soned and reg­u­lar ex­er­ciser.’ It’s time to use your head.

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