Why exercise works so well for brain health

TThere are many ways to keep your brain healthy as you age. For starters, you can eat brain-healthy foods like omega-3 fatty acids. You can drink plenty of water, manage your blood pressure by managing stress, exercise, and making small changes to your routine so you don’t have to exercise throughout the day (like taking the stairs instead of the elevator) to help prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

Another thing to add to your list? Exergaming.

It never heads? Don’t worry. “Exergaming is active gaming, or gaming that requires physical movement to play,” says Ryan Glatt, MS, CPT, NBC-HWC, brain health coach and director of the FitBrain program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute. “Typical historical examples include Dance Dance Revolution and the Nintendo Wii, while more modern examples include the virtual reality Exergame and those on platforms like the Nintendo Switch.”

Benefits of exercise

According to Glatt, exergames can have a wide range of benefits depending on the population in question. “For older adults with or without neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia or mild cognitive impairment, exercise has been shown to benefit motor functions such as cognition, mood and balance,” he says.

In 2019, a systematic review showed that open-skill exercise—any type of exercise that’s unpredictable, such as exergaming—can improve some cognitive functions compared to closed-skill exercise, such as machine learning, he added.

Exergaming is one way to improve your dual-task performance. “Dual-tasking is the simultaneous performance of two tasks that can be performed and measured separately,” Glatt explains. “Dual-tasking appears in more skill-based exercise methods such as sports, dance, martial arts and mind-body exercises.” They can have many benefits for the brain and body, he says.

Anyone can benefit from better dual-task ability, but research shows it’s especially helpful for older adults and people with attention deficits.

How often should you exercise for good brain health?

As brain health becomes a concern as you age, the sooner you start strengthening your neural and cognitive functions—and the more consistently you do so throughout your life—the better chance you have of keeping your mental abilities intact. Ideally, Glatt says he’d like to see more research on the benefits of exercise in healthy populations.

Still, it’s clear that consistency is key to making any meaningful changes in your mind or body. The more regular you exercise over a longer period of time, the better chance you have of reaping their benefits.

“A systematic review conducted in 2017 found that a minimum of 12 weeks, 60 minutes of exercise per week, was required to maintain cognitive benefits in attention, executive function and visuospatial skills,” Glatt said. “Further research is needed to understand what combinations of exercises are required to achieve specific goals, and for whom and how long these benefits last.”

Why training your brain while training your body could be the future of fitness

One of the easiest, most effective ways to change your behavior is habit stacking, which means adding a new routine to one you’re already doing. So a potentially simple way to get more people to exercise is to combine this kind of mental training with the physical training they’re already doing. To this end, the American Council on Exercise, one of the nation’s largest personal trainer certification programs, tapped Glatt to develop a brain health trainer course for its members.

“There was no other accurate information about brain health and exercise that was really applicable,” says Glatt. “I hope that what coaches learn about how the brain ages, the fundamentals of neuroscience, the effects of exercise on the brain and how that informs programming, can be an important force in the fight against the epidemic of neurodegenerative diseases from a prevention perspective.” Definitely something to think about.

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