Strength Train Your Brain

woman-working-outGet ahead at work, stop stress, and boost your smarts — all by lacing up your sneakers. Check out the moves that’ll put you at the top of your game.

Last week, scared silly about a speech I had to give, I rode my bike to the event, hoping it would calm my jitters. Luckily, it did that and a whole lot more: Cycling cleared my head so that I was able to remember the lecture word for word without notes. I gave the best talk of my life.

Turns out, that half-hour workout was the smartest pre-speech prep I could have done, according to a number of new studies showing 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 tests if they take them shortly after doing 30 minutes of aerobics. “Learning, remembering, reasoning, alertness, and mood improve with fitness,” says Patrick Hogan, DO, 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.”

Add healthy eating to your stay-fit regimen and your mental power will skyrocket. Check out our get-smart plan for the lowdown on the best foods and moves for your noggin.

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, PhD, 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, MD, 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.

“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.

Courtesy of Fitness Magazine.

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