What’s Good for Your Heart Is Good for Your Brain
We’re rolling steadily into an unfolding new year; a time when many folks, including me, set the intention to set some good intentions – exercise more, eat healthier food, get more sleep, spend more time playing with the kids, working in the garden, going for long walks.
I’m offering here a series of practices to make following through on those intentions more compelling: everything we do to nourish our bodies, our spirits, our relationships, also nourishes the brain. Our brains stay sharper and clearer each moment of the day, even as we age through another year into another decade.
EXERCISE and MOVEMENT
We begin with exercise and movement. I really felt the impact of staying indoors for two weeks during the wildfires we experienced in northern California last fall, followed by two more weeks of (most welcome!) drenching rain. My body stiffened and became achy without regular (and enjoyable) walks on the ridge trail near my house. My brain got foggy, mushy, too. I couldn’t think as clearly, nor recover from stressful moments as quickly.
Here are some basics about why movement, even gentle movement, is essential to brain health, and some very simple practices to keep our brains sharp and ready to learn.
Research in the last ten years has made it abundantly clear — we need to move our bodies not just for the health of our heart, lungs, muscles, and joints, but also for the health of our brain. One of the best things you can do for your physical brain is to break a sweat with aerobic exercise.
Vigorous exercise makes your brain release brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) This is the hormonal growth factor that causes your brain to grow new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, the structure of the brain that consolidates learning from new experiences into long-term memory. BDNF also stimulates those new neurons to increase the length, density, and complexity of their dendrites (the extensions of the neurons that receive input from other neurons), creating “thicker,” more complex networks in the brain. In addition, BDNF speeds the maturation of new neurons into fully functioning brain cells. This protects related structures, like the prefrontal cortex, from brain atrophy and cognitive decline. Exercise makes you smarter. It can help you think more clearly well into old age. Exercise can even help reverse memory decline as you age.
The adult brain weighs only about three pounds, but it uses 20 percent of all of the oxygen consumed by the body. Regular exercise also stimulates the heart to pump more blood to the brain, increasing the flow of oxygen and glucose in the brain that fuels all of the brain’s activity. Furthermore, exercise causes the release of essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that stimulate various types of brain activity; endorphins that make you feel better (the source of the “runner’s high” or “athlete’s flow” that some people experience); and acetylcholine, which increases alertness. Because of these effects, exercise has been shown to be as effective an antidepressant as Prozac in head-to-head clinical trials.
Exercise regenerates our telomeres, the protective protein sheaths at the ends of our chromosomes, likened to the plastic caps on the ends of our shoelaces that keep our shoelaces from unraveling. Because telomeres keep our chromosomes from unraveling as they replicate, protecting our telomeres prevents copying errors in our DNA and extends our span of healthy life. Exercise also extends our span of healthy life because it acts as an anti-inflammatory, reducing the underlying causes of many systemic diseases and delaying the onset of degenerative diseases.
The body needs to move for about thirty minutes for the brain to release feel-good endorphins. Three times a week is good enough. Five times a week is great. Little and often applies here, too: moderate exercise over several days is more effective (and safer) than a big workout once a week.
Activities like running, vigorous walking, bicycling, swimming, and using the stair climber at the gym are bilateral movements (moving the two sides of the body alternately, thus stimulating the two hemispheres of your brain alternately) and have an especially calming effect on your nervous system while nourishing your brain. Exercising with others — dancing, tennis, basketball, and volleyball — activates your social engagement system, creating a sense of safety in the brain and priming its neuroplasticity. Activities like these also engage the dopamine pathway of pleasure and reward in the lower brain that keeps you motivated. Mix it up to keep your exercise routine interesting. Recruit a buddy or join a good gym to expand your options and enhance your motivation.
If aerobic exercise is reaching beyond your body’s physical capacities, try these gentler exercises that help you move your body and nourish your brain.
Four-Minute Brain and Body Workout
When there’s simply not enough time in the day to work out at the gym, or go for a swim, hike, or bike ride, try these simple four-minute exercise routines to stimulate growth and health in your brain. You can repeat them several times a day if you wish.
1. Walk up and down flights of stairs to your favorite upbeat song for four minutes.
2. Do a combination of desk push-ups and squats at work. Invite a friend or coworker to do this exercise with you.
3. While you are brushing your teeth, do a set of deep leg squats and side bends. Face the mirror and slowly lean your torso to the right and to the left, stretching out the ribs on the side opposite to the direction you are leaning.
4. Play a four-minute game of tag with your kids, or borrow a friend’s kids to play tag with. Be a kid again yourself by spinning a hula hoop for four minutes. It’s an amazing aerobic workout for your abdominal and core muscles.
5. Set a timer for four minutes and clean up as much of your home or office as you can as fast as you can. Try cleaning the bathtub or do some speed vacuuming or mopping; that can really work up a sweat, and the chore will be over in four minutes!
Though you may not trigger a runner’s high in four minutes of exercise, your brain is getting many of the other benefits of vigorous exercise, including protecting its long-term functioning.
Life Is a Gym: Exercising through Daily Activities
There is a poster in my doctor’s office at Kaiser Permanente showing a woman carrying two bags of groceries walking down a sidewalk with the caption “Life Is a Gym.” Whatever your lifestyle, you need to move your body every sixty to ninety minutes to refresh your brain. Incorporating frequent movement into your daily routine is essential for maintaining brain health and it’s easy to do.
1. If you work at a desk, get off the computer, get up, and walk down the hall or around the block. You can get hyper-focused or feel the stress of a deadline and forget, but taking regular breaks helps your brain refresh and reset itself; you avoid brain fog or brain fatigue.
2. Walk to work. Park a few blocks away from work and walk from there. Walk up the stairs. Walk at lunch. When you move your body, you nourish your brain.
3. Do your chores mindfully: pay attention to your movements when you make the bed, do the dishes, fold the laundry, pick up the kids’ toys, take out the garbage, weed the garden, mow the lawn, or wash the car. Notice the stretching, the bending, the flexing. Notice the changes in sensation, in balance, in energy. These tasks may not be aerobic, and they may not last thirty minutes, but they can all count. Study after study has shown that mindful movement brings extra benefit to the brain: the focused attention keeps the brain awake and engaged, giving it a workout, too.
4. A wonderful way to pay attention to movement is forest bathing (exercise 2-15). Walk through nature, noticing the feel of the air or sun on your body, hearing birdsong, smelling a flower or a pine needle, touching a stone or a leaf or the bark of a tree, seeing the changes in colors and shape, light and shadows. A walk of ten to sixty minutes is healing to the brain.
5. If your mobility is more limited, practice yoga, chi gong, or tai chi at home. This is mindful movement par excellence. The regular practices of gentle movements integrated with breath awareness benefit the brain more than exercise without awareness, or meditation practice without movement.
Keeping your body flexible and limber helps to keep your brain flexible and agile, too, ready to meet the ever-changing challenges of life.