Is keeping your mind sharp as you age important to you? The answer you seek may not be in those Sudoku books you buy, but in the steps you took through the book store to find it. As simple as it sounds, science has found that having an active lifestyle can actually boost learning and memory, no matter what stage you are in your life.(1) One of my personal goals is to learn Spanish and to finally consider myself bilingual. I’ve spent years reading books and listening to Latin music, and I’ve become enthralled with telenovelas even though I have no idea what the heck they are talking about. I’ve been frustrated with my progress almost as long as I’ve been studying Spanish. But then I came across some research about how exercise has an impact on cognitive function, and I decided to do a little experiment. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Exercise and being physically active has so many benefits beyond what you can see in the mirror. I’ve always considered these benefits as a bonus. Not many people take the time to consider how much physical activities do for our whole body. In addition to maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and engaging in consistent exercise can help maintain and even improve your brain power.(2) This brain boost can happen at any point in our lives, from children all the way through our golden years. Even if you haven’t been physically active consistently in the past, it’s never too late to start. In fact, research has shown that the more active you can become after mid-life, the lower the risk of developing dementia. (3)
... being physically active and engaging in consistent exercise can help maintain and even improve your brain power.
When we engage in exercise, a variety of beneficial hormones get released into our bloodstream. You may have heard of the exercise induced hormone endorphins, which help decrease pain, strengthen immunity as well as giving you that ‘runners high’ or feeling of delight and excitement. (4)
However, one hormone in particular that scientists are just now learning more about is the hormone called ‘Irisin.’ They have found that Irisin has direct links to improved health and cognitive function.(3) Elevated Irisin levels have been found in the brain due to endurance exercise (any exercise that involves several large groups of muscles and uses the aerobic system (which requires constant absorption of oxygen) to the muscles through the cardiovascular system). (5)(6) Another molecule that is prevalent in your brain as you exercise - BDNF - has been shown that it can actually grow new neurons in the brain. This is present in anyone who engages in regular aerobic activity. (6)
Think about your current lifestyle choices--how often to you feel stressed out or anxious? This is a common symptom that is seen throughout society here in the US. Chronic stress, anxiety and depression have been connected to the loss of neurons in the brain, which seems to be connected to another hormone that our body releases in times of stress, cortisol. Fortunately, incorporating and maintaining a consistent exercise program can be key to your physical AND mental success. Consistent exercise is linked to the growth of new neurons as well as lowering the damage inducing cortisol levels. (6)
Chronic stress, anxiety and depression have been connected to the loss of neurons in the brain...
As with all good things in life, there is a limit to this wonder-hormone. If you overexert yourself too much - this super-hormone will probably tap out( although you need to put yourself in extreme situations for this to happen (ultra-endurance level over-exertion.) (6)
Ready to get those Irisin juices flowing but not sure where to start?
Here is a good place:
The current US national recommendations for the minimum amount of activity we should be engaging in is: (7)
Remember to include Muscle strengthening activities at moderate-high intensity and involve all major muscle groups at least 2 days per week in addition to your aerobic plan*.
*If you have never engaged in an exercise program before, it's been a long time, talk to your health care professional before starting an exercise program on your own.
Older adults/Those living with chronic conditions
The current recommendations stated above also apply to older adults and those living with chronic medical conditions (heart disease, diabetes, etc).
If chronic conditions limit you from fulfilling the 150 minutes per week of moderate to intense exercise, you should still strive to incorporate as much aerobic activity as you are able to handle. You will still gain benefits with any quantity of exercise you can handle.
Include balance training exercises - to help reduce the risk of falls
Speak with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program.
Where you can start -
Walk your dog/child/spouse/self around your neighborhood for 30 minutes at a brisk pace.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Even if you live/work on a high floor, take the elevator up to a level where you get out and still climb 2-3 levels in the stairwell.
If you live near your work - and the roads aren’t too busy/dangerous - consider riding your bike to work at least a few days per week.
So, back to my Spanish progress - after I learned about the brain boosting effects of exercise, I thought to myself, what if I listened to my Spanish audiobooks while I exercised? Well, I am a few weeks into my experiment and I’m happy to report that Mi español está mejorando más rápido de lo que pensaba era posible. Happy body, happy mind.
"The Brain Drain of Inactivity"
"Irisin - The 'Exercise Hormone' Has Powerful Health Benefits."
"Physical Activity Improves Cognitive Function"
"Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters"
Endurance Exercise: Definition
"Scientists Discover Why Exercise Makes You Smarter"
2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Summary
Question from the audience:
How is Irisin detected in plasma? (received on 5/23/2016)