Skip to main content

« Back

Strength Train Your Brain

Apr 4, 2010

(fight aging, stop stress, and boost your mood)

New studies have shown that exercise strengthens the body and the mind. For instance, a recent finding from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reveals that people perform significantly better on memory test if they take them shortly after doing 30 minutes of aerobics. “Learning, remembering, reasoning, alertness and mood improve with fitness,” says Patrick Hogan, D.O., a neurologist with Puget Sound Neurology in Tacoma, Washington. “A physical workout is better than any medicine. It’s the single most powerful thing you can do for your brain.”

Exercise Your Mind

To be at your sharpest, hit the ground running. “A challenging exercise regimen increases blood flow and oxygen throughout our bodies and activates growth-stimulating hormones in the brain that help form new cells there,” Dr. Hogan says. No wonder a recent study found that fitness buffs have a larger hippocampus—the region of the brain that plays a crucial role in learning and memory—than couch potatoes do. Active people may even be smarter: Exercise makes tough mental tasks, such as plotting strategy, easier to do by forging new connections between our brain cells, says Kirk I. Erickson, Ph.D., an assistant psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and coauthor of the study.

Working out also helps reverse the effects of chronic stress, which may hurt your brain. “When we’re under constant pressure, our bodies become flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone that changes the structure of the brain, shrinks the size of the hippocampus and hinders our ability to learn and remember,” says Raj Shah, M.D., medical director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Exercise appears to lower cortisol levels and “rebuild” mental muscle by revving up the process that generates new cells and neurons. “In addition, physical activity may produce endorphins and other natural chemicals that calm us down and help us focus,” Dr. Shah explains.

Your mental-fitness game plan: “Aim for 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity at least three days a week,” Erickson says. “Anything that leaves you out of breath is a good choice,” like biking, running and using the elliptical. To make your workout even more challenging mentally and physically, do intervals, as in this cardio circuit from Johanna Subotovsky, a trainer at Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York City.

  • Warm up with a brisk 4-minute walk.
  • Jog at a steady pace for 10 minutes
  • For the next 6 minutes, alternate 1 minute of walking lunges with 1 minute of walking.
  • Run at a fast pace for 5 minutes.
  • Cool down with 5 minutes of brisk walking.

Eat Smart

Food is the fuel that keeps your brain running, but noshing on the right stuff is key. “You need a huge variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients for maximum brain health,” says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Ph.D., a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA. That means piling your plate with as many different fruits and vegetables as you can every day, including “berries and apples, because they contain a lot of vitamin C and flavonoids, both of which are powerful antioxidants that keep your brain cells in prime condition,” Gomez-Pinilla says. Broccoli and spinach have more vitamins A, C and E than most other veggies do. And fish is crucial because it’s chock-full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which keep the membranes of brain cells strong. Be sure to eat every few hours to regulate your blood sugar. If it gets too low, you won’t be able to think straight.

Hungry? Try this sample day’s menu below—it will help make you sharper by bedtime.

Power Meal/breakfast

  • 1 cup nonfat plain Greek Yogurt
  • 1 sprinkle crunchy whole-grain cereal like Grape-Nuts or Kashi GoLean
  • 1 big handful blueberries
  • 1 cup coffee

Greek yogurt is high in protein, which provides a steady supply of energy, helping your brain stay charged all morning. Protein also increases levels of epinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals that make you more alert. The carbs in the cereal give you a dose of glucose, which gets you going. Blueberries are potent antioxidants that have been shown to spur brain-cell production and help improve memory. Caffeine, a stimulant, speeds up your brain and can boost memory and reasoning, research shows.

Power Meal/lunch

  • baby spinach
  • 1 ounce walnuts (about 14 halves)
  • Fruits and vegetables such as red grapes and yellow peppers
  • Vinaigrette
  • 1 cup green tea

Spinach is loaded with vitamin E, which helps neutralize the free radicals in your body that damage brain cells, and the oil in the vinaigrette aids in the absorption of the vitamin. Walnuts are a top source of omega-3’s, which reduce inflammation in the brain and allow it to function properly. Colorful fruits and vegetables contain an array of brain boosting antioxidants and nutrients, and green tea is rich in flavonoids, which improve mental performance.

Power Meal/dinner

  • ½ cup fortified whole-wheat pasta
  • Tomato sauce
  • 4 ounces of salmon
  • 1 cup broccoli or Brussels sprouts

Fortified pasta is enriched with folic acid, a nutrient that may improve brain function, according to a study. Tomato sauce is loaded with antioxidants that help prevent inflammation. Fish such as salmon and mackerel are packed with omega-3’s. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts contain vitamin E.

By Maura Kelly

Fitness Magazine Sept. 2009


Schedule a complimentary fit evaluation so we can get to know you and your goals and build you a customized training program to reach them.