Adding Exercise to Your Weekly Routine May Boost Thinking, Planning Skills

Recent research underscores the brain benefits of just half an hour of aerobic activity a day.

Can taking a brisk walk help you stay organized? Does bicycling improve concentration?

According to a study published recently in the journal Neurology, a little aerobic exercise can make a noticeable improvement in executive functionÑa set of higher-level thinking skills that include things like paying attention and organizing.

The study involved 160 adults (average age 65) who had some thinking skills problems but not dementia. Study participants were divided into four groups, one of which exercised for 35 minutes a day, three days a week. Another group included those who followed the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, while a different group followed the DASH diet and exercised, and the fourth group received health education through weekly phone calls.

At the start of the study, executive function skills of all the participants were tested. Similar tests were administered at the end of the six-month study period. The average scores at the beginning were like those of someone age 93Ñ28 years older than the actual average age of the participants.

The individuals who exercised scored much higher than those who didn’t exercise on the executive function tests at the end of the study. And the study participants who exercised and followed the DASH diet scored the highest of all. The scores of the exercise and diet group were like those of someone age 84, a nine-year improvement.

The findings aren’t surprising, especially given evidence from previous studies that links exercise with neurogenesisÑthe production of new neurons (nerve cells in the brain), says psychologist Louisa Sylvia, PhD, director of Psychology at the Dauten Center for Bipolar Treatment Innovation at MGH.

“Exercise triggers the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates the growth of new neurons,” Dr. Sylvia says. And that, she adds, boosts brain function.

Brisk Walks and the Brain

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein produced inside nerve cells. In addition to promoting the growth of new neurons, BDNF helps keep existing neurons healthy.

Physical activity produces additional benefits for brain health, too. For example, exercise causes the body to release dopamine and endorphins, which are chemicals that promote a happier mood, while helping clear the brain of chemicals that can cause stress.

Exercise also makes the heart beat faster and stronger, which improves blood flow to the brain. That means more oxygen and nutrients to nourish brain tissue. And regular exercise helps improve sleep, which is essential for brain health and functions.

In the study, participants walked briskly or rode a stationary bike. The type of exercise, though, isn’t as important as the amount or “dose” of exercise, Dr. Sylvia says. “For most people, the benefits of exercise have to do with dose,” she says. “Go from 5,000 steps a week to 10,000 steps. In general, the more you do, the better the outcome.”

Dr. Sylvia adds, however, that any increase in activity provides a benefit. “The more you just sit, the more the body breaks down,” she says. If half an hour of exercise every other day seems too ambitious, start with 10 minutes.

Sticking With It

Of course, the key to make those cognitive and physical improvements last is to keep on exercising day after day, month after month. You can start by asking yourself some helpful questions about what will keep you exercising.

Dr. Sylvia suggests asking if you’re a person motivated by numbers. If you like the idea of watching your pedometer jump from 2,000 steps a day to 2,500 steps, then use those increasing numbers to keep you moving. There are countless smartphone apps and devices to track your steps.

If numbers don’t excite you but exercising with others gets you out to the fitness center or the walking trail, then find group classes or other activities that allow you to combine socializing with exercising, Dr. Sylvia says.

She adds that whatever activity you choose, it can’t be one that is painful or makes you too uncomfortable. A high-intensity workout that leaves you sore and breathless isn’t a good choice, even if it’s only for seven or eight minutes. “You’re better off doing something for 20 minutes and enjoying it, because you’re more likely to stick with it,” Dr. Sylvia says.

Little Goals, Big Results

One last piece of advice Dr. Sylvia offers is to be realistic about your exercise goals. She recommends not using weight loss as the main motivator, because weight tends to drop slower than most people expect or want.

“Almost everyone sets goals that are unattainable,” she says. “Set small goals, annoyingly small goals. You have to make things realistic.”

If that means just adding a few hundred steps to your daily walk, consider that progress and think that you may be a few hundred steps closer to better brain function.

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