When I meet a client for the first time I listen hard. I’m listening for triggers, clues in their language as to what drives them to exercise. For most it is to lose weight, for some it is to improve their strength and flexibility. However recently I had an unusual request. This new client was drawn to exercise to boost his brain power.
This particular gentleman is a highly respected and educated Nuero-scientist and it was my pleasure to make contact with him. His view on the benefit of regular exercise was different to anyone I had encountered, and his knowledge on the subject left me often with my jaw agape. I found the subject so interesting I would like to share with you what I have learned so far. I hope in doing so provide you with more motivation than just physical benefits when you think of exercising.
From our evolutionary history there is one fact beyond dispute. Our ancestors spent their lives on the move, and they moved a lot. Research shows generally a male would cover 20 kilometres a day, with women covering about half that distance. What this means is our brain as we know it now, with all its brilliance and complexity, evolved under circumstances of consistent hyperactivity.
Looking around the population close to you, or even looking closely at yourself, you will notice people of similar age with varying levels of health, both physically and mentally. I have a friend Frank who is in his 80’s. Mentally sharp, quick witted, Frank recently completed writing, directing and then touring a musical. He shows no signs of reduced brain function due to his age. I also have an Aunt of similar age, and her quality of life is much different. She spends her day in her nursing home room being fed, bathed and has trouble maintaining concentration even for a brief time.
You would determine Frank has aged well, and my Aunt unfortunately has not. Aging is inevitable however the speed of the process is flexible. Frank has always been physically active, and he tells me it was nothing for him to ride the 30 kilometres to work and back every day. My Aunt never much left her house. An avid painter her pursuits were spent indoors with little or no attention to maintaining her physical fitness.
Research has now shown one of the key environmental predictors to someone’s ability to grow old gracefully or not, is the presence or absence of a sedentary lifestyle. We understand regular cardiovascular activity will reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke so it makes sense physically, however the marked difference in mental alertness was puzzling.
It turns out regular cardiovascular exercise benefits the brain in 3 ways.
Regular cardiovascular activity increases the amount of blood to your brain. Blood transports glucose, the preferred energy source for the brain, and as a simple consequence will boost the brain’s ability to perform in the short and long term. You may be familiar with the opposite of this if you haven’t eaten for several hours. A reduction in glucose supply to your brain will result in a brain fog, making it difficult to concentrate and think clearly. It is clear the move you move the more energy (sugar) is supplied to the brain, allowing it to function at a higher level.
Blood also carries oxygen. Oxygen plays an important and vital role in the health of your brain. The brain consumes an enormous quantity of glucose for energy, it is by far the greediest organ of our body. As a result of this energy production, like any manufacturing process, toxic waste material is produced. This toxic waste is known as ‘free radicals’ and the effect of these on your brain and other tissues is extremely violent and damaging. Oxygen soaks up these free radicals, binding to them and converting them to carbon dioxide. Equally damaging but as carbon dioxide is transportable this waste can now be moved out of your brain and your body
The good news is aerobic exercise just twice per week will halve your risk of general dementia, and will cut your risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%. Unfortunately my Aunt didn’t know this as her sedentary lifestyle more than likely has influenced her present mental state. Frank on the other hand is a fine example of a person who has lived in accordance with our natural biology, and the result is a human being vibrant, active and very much alive.