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Exercise And Your Brain

By Laurel-Lea Shannon

We all know that exercise is good for us. As well as reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, it lowers blood pressure, elevates mood and helps us maintain a healthy weight. But there’s more good news.

In a recent study at the University of British Columbia researchers found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for verbal memory and learning. As Heidi Godman, the executive editor of The Harvard Health Letter, explains, “The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”

exercise-brainRegular exercise also reduces stress and anxiety and improves mood and sleep, problems that are known to contribute to cognitive impairment as you age. This finding comes at a good time: dementia cases are estimated to increase to 115 million people worldwide by 2050.

There’s more good news: It doesn’t take much exercise to get these benefits. As little as 120 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking, dancing, stair-climbing, or tennis will improve your brain. The researchers define moderate intensity as any exercise that gets your heart pumping enough to break into a light sweat.

As cyclists, and women who care about fitness, we’ve easily got this covered. But still, it’s something to think about while churning the pedals and going nowhere on your trainer this winter—all that effort is not just making you fitter, it’s making you smarter!

Plan for success:

  1.  No matter what you have planned, whether you’re running early in the morning, swimming on your lunch break or hitting the gym after work, set your workout clothes out the night before. This sets the stage for exercise, and helps to make it a habit.
  2. Schedule your workout. If you keep a daily calendar or a to-do list, add it to the list.
  3. Join a class or workout with a friend.
  4. Set a goal and keep a workout journal to track your progress. This helps with motivation.
  5. Hire a personal trainer, such as Diane Stibbard, to customize your workouts and help keep you accountable.
  6. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you just don’t have the time for a workout. Be prepared with “plan b.” For example, do a 4-minute Tabata Interval workout instead (actually takes about twenty minutes with warm up and cool down), or use an exercise app, such as the free Scientific 7 Minute Workout offered by The New York Times. It includes 12 exercises, such as jumping jacks, squats and push-ups, that fulfill the latest requirements for a high-intensity effort. Better yet, the workout can be done at home or in an office—anywhere there’s a wall and a chair.


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