Forget brain training games as the only route to boosting brain power and cognitive abilities. Researchers have found the regular exercise can have a positive effect on your brain. It staves off brain illnesses, helps keep your mind sharp, and improves your memory and ability to concentrate.
Exercise may boost brain power thanks to the effect it has on the body’s ability to transfer oxygen to our brains. Increased oxygen can reduce the harm caused by free radicals, and stimulate the release of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These chemicals have a positive mental effect. They increase how motivated we feel, our ability to concentrate, and how successful we are at learning, absorbing and recalling new information.
Exercise combats the fact that as we age our brains actually reduce in size. While studies aren’t clear on the exact cause of brain shrinkage, a combination of factors including poor diet, high blood pressure, depression and ageing cause the hippocampus to shrink.
Exercise can also physically increase the size of your brain – especially in later life. According to research by the University of Pittsburgh in 2011, exercise can both improve memory and increase the size of the brain, especially the hippocampus.
Further studies corroborate the benefits of exercise on brainpower. Research by the University of Auckland in 2016 shows that just 30 minutes of exercise can reduce the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, increasing the brain’s neuroplasticity.
So, get up from the sofa and get exercising seems to be the message. Not only will exercise help to improve your general bodily health, but it can also have a positive impact on brain health and brainpower.
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Exercises to boost brain power
Different exercises can have varying degrees of impact on brainpower – but any exercise is better than none for your brain health.
If you are selective about the exercises you want to do, such as you’re just getting back into exercise, or you have mobility concerns, then picking the right exercise is worth knowing.
We’ve rounded up some of the different types of exercise to try, along with any research on potential benefits for brain health and boosting brainpower.
Everyday exercise to boost brain power
Walking – Taking a 40-minute walk at a reasonable pace three times a week may help slow the brain’s decline due to ageing. Walking regularly has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, and may also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dancing – There are plenty of studies that show the positive benefits of dancing on brainpower and brain health. One study by Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg in 2017 found that dancing increased both the volume of the hippocampus, but also other areas of the brain. It followed adults aged 63 to 80 who embarked on an 18-month dancing programme. Other studies have found that the majority of people aged over 75 who regularly dance demonstrated fewer signs of dementia.
Weight training and resistance training – Lifting weights is a great exercise as we age. Not only does it increase muscle mass, which declines with age, but it also increases metabolism and helps with weight loss. It can also have a positive impact on brainpower and mental well-being. According to numerous studies, it appears lifting weights can affect various parts of the brain, boosting our ability to concentrate, improve memory and overall alertness and increase brain capacity.
Yoga – If you don’t fancy hitting the gym and lifting weights, at the opposite end of the spectrum yoga may offer plenty of brain benefits. Yoga targets different areas of the body, but its overall impact of improving blood flow effectively delivers more oxygen to the brain. Research has found yoga can help improve memory, with many yoga poses offering targeted brain benefits. While it’s worth working with a skilled yoga practitioner and building up yoga expertise slowly, once mastered poses such as ‘intense forward bending’ can deliver a rush of oxygenated blood to the brain.
Breathing – Concentrating on breathing delivers a sense of calm to your mind, helping you better handling stress. Slowing down our breathing and thinking can boost our ability to control our mental state and studies show that deep breathing can result in electrical changes to the brain. When breathing out from holding your breath, your brain’s electrical impulses can increase in frequency helping with concentration and reducing stress.
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Sports and activities to boost brain power
Tai Chi – Renowned for its ability to reduce stress, Tai Chi is a popular exercise for older people as it’s a low impact discipline. According to research by the University of South Florida in 2012 Tai Chi improves brain size, as well as boosting brain power by improving both memory and thinking. A further study by the Oregon Research Institute in 2012 found that Tai Chi can have a positive impact on people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, increasing posture and resulting in fewer falls.
Tennis – Running around a tennis court demands not only a good level of fitness but concentration and strategy. Combine this with the need to tactically plan each shot –literally thinking on your feet – and tennis has shown to help improve brainpower.
Swimming – Swimming is a low-impact exercise that benefits everyone. It boosts brainpower by increasing oxygen flow to the brain, while the need for deep, regular breathing and rhythmic strokes have a similar effect as meditation in helping to relax the mind.
Golf – Playing a round of golf delivers similar benefits to brain health as walking, but also give an extra boost to brainpower. Because golf demands mental engagement, it may help with improving mental abilities such as memory and concentration. Depending on your game, walking around a golf course can also release pleasure-triggering endorphins, leading to feelings of relaxation and calmness. Golf may even help you live longer. A study by the Karolinska Institutet found that people who play golf have a 40% lower death rate – translating into a significantly increased lifespan of an extra five years.