As published in the Vancouver Sun on April 21, 2012 and the Province on April 22, 2012
Not all exercises and not all nutrition are created equally. Just as there are some “super foods” like walnuts, fish oil, blueberries, flaxseed and avocado— which contain nutrients that are particularly good for your body and brain, so too are there activities that could be considered “super exercises” that keep the heart pumping and the brain working.
“As part of our research program we have been investigating the relationship between brain health and both physical and mental exercise,” says Dr. Michael Koehle, Director of Research at Copeman Healthcare and Assistant Professor of Sports Medicine and Kinesiology, University of British Columbia.
“We know that there is scientific evidence showing that physical exercise is good for brain health. We also know that cognitive exercises such as reading, solving puzzles, visiting the museum, etc. are also important in the protection of brain function.”
Although the brain only accounts for about two per cent of our body weight, it nevertheless consumes 20 per cent of our oxygen and 20-30 per cent of our overall food intake. Vigorous exercise helps deliver oxygen, boosts blood flow and facilitates efficient delivery of nutrients needed to fuel the brain.
“The ultimate exercise is one that helps build resilience in body, mind and brain,” says Don Copeman, founder and CEO of Copeman Healthcare, “Look for activities like ballroom dancing that keep your cardiovascular system healthy while keeping your brain busy. If your exercise requires memory, planning, coordination, focus and alertness you’ll be helping prevent heart disease while building a more healthy and resilient brain. And because they will keep you fit, focused and feeling good about yourself, they will do wonders for your psychological health. Multidimensional activities will put you on the fast track to true wellness.”
Science has shown that the brain has more “plasticity” than once thought and that brain cells can regenerate throughout our lives. Therefore, many areas of the brain affected by aging, injury or other conditions can be “exercised” to remediate problems. By choosing physical activities that also tax the brain we can help keep our minds operating at peak performance and stave off age-related issues such as vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Other benefits of exercise are relaxation, sleep and disengagement. Typically when we exercise we disengage from our stressors, we are able to relax and this helps facilitate proper sleep. This in turn helps with short-term memory and the encoding of information needed for long-term knowledge acquisition. In contrast, when we are feeling stressed our attention span is negatively impacted, we have difficulty focusing, our sleep is often interrupted and short-term memory begins to suffer. Some exercises such as yoga or Pilates specifically help with relaxation and disengagement by forcing the athlete to focus their mind on breathing. Exercise is a very personal choice and choosing something you like is the best way to realize the long-term benefits that only persistence and consistency can produce.