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’
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.