Exercise as Brain Train


Given my lack of interest in Sudoku (OK perhaps I should rephrase that as my lack of comprehension of Sudoku), I am very keen on the idea that regular exercise can protect me not only from physical but also mental decline. Now whilst I can see myself cultivating an interest in verbal puzzles one day – in a distant future when I actually have a moment to sit down and relax – I’m pretty sure that non-verbal reasoning is never really going to fl oat my boat. But in the meantime it reassures me to think that keeping physically active is somehow doing my brain good, not least because I can quite clearly remember how dementia affected my grandmother over the years. As I get older I realise that when we are very young we really do feel invincible and it is only on reaching middle age that the reality of one’s fragility and mortality truly sinks in.

We all know that regular exercise protects the body from many of the scourges of sedentary society, such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease. We are also familiar with the fact that exercise can be very effective when it comes to emotional well-being but it is only relatively recently that research has been cited to support the effectiveness of exercise in maintaining and even enhancing brain function. Yet this is precisely what recent studies suggest. What is particularly exciting is that this research shows that exercise not only has a protective effect but also a regenerative one: in other words, certain types of exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning. Think about it: it means that we can actually improve on our cognitive function through exercise.

But it would appear that in this instance, not all forms of exercise are equal. I must confess that this was news to me and has made me think about my weekly spread of exercise. It would seem that it is cardiovascular exercise (the sort that gets the heart pumping) such as swimming, jogging, walking and cycling, rather than other forms, such as resistance and core stability, which helps train the brain. Much of the research in this field has focused on the effects of regular walking which is great news as it is a form of fitness that the majority of us can fit into our lives. Walking requires very little in the way of equipment, can start and end at our front door – great for the time poor – and is functional. We humans were designed to do lots of walking and many of the physical problems prevalent today, such as back pain, can be directly linked back to spending far too long seated every day and not walking enough.

Cardiovascular exercise also has indirect benefits on cognition: by reducing cortisol and stress levels and by improving your mood and sleep this, in turn, helps clear “brain fog” and keep you mentally agile. So there really are many good reasons for incorporating regular cardiovascular exercise into your life and it needn’t be a time consuming chore.

I am in a phase of life that most people would classify as busy: my children are all growing up, they have increasingly complex activities and social lives yet they still live at home and need ferrying around. I also work full time. So regular exercise is always a challenge not least because I am determined that it shouldn’t drop to the bottom of the pile. So what can we all do to squeeze in our weekly dose of brain-enhancing cardiovascular exercise?

One really helpful thing to remember is that the effects of exercise are cumulative. For busy people it’s reassuring to be told that you don’t have to carve out an hour of time for fitness. All the various bits and bobs you do throughout the day will add up and count. Here is what I accumulate throughout the day:

• An early morning brisk walk with the puppy before the children are up: 20 minutes under my belt.
• A bike ride with my youngest to school and back twice a day: this adds up to a total of 35 minutes.
• On some days I cycle into town for a coffee which adds another 30 minutes to my daily tally.
• Late night brisk walk with the puppy and my eldest son so that we can catch up on the day’s news: a final 20 minutes’ worth of gentle cardio.

So without having to find any official extra time to exercise, I manage to include a generous hour of cardio into my life on most days of the week. And all of the above isn’t counting the pre-arranged exercise that I do at the gym and which I have to make time in the diary for.

With a little imagination I really do believe that most of us can shoehorn enough brain-protecting, mood-enhancing, heart-protecting cardiovascular exercise into our lives. There’s nothing quite like killing three birds with one stone when you’re short of time!

Dr Joanna Helcke is an expert in pregnancy and postnatal Pilates and winner of the UK's most prestigious fitness award: the 2014 FitPro Award for Excellence in Fitness.


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