The 5 Physical Activities that Give You Sound Mental Health

No, it's not about filling in crossword puzzles, learning a new language or playing a guessing game, it's about the skills that not only keep you mentally sharp, but also keep you in good spirits and physically fit.

To get you excited about the idea, according to experiments by a medical team in Sweden, more than 1,400 new neurons are produced every day in the human brain, the rate of which declines with age unless stimulated, as in the rest of the human body.

According to specialist Jonas Frisén, "for a long time it was thought that we are born with a certain number of brain cells and that it is impossible to generate new neurons after birth.  Then it began to be thought that there is a certain rate of renewal, but it was not known how much, or how important it is for brain health.  This studyhas provided evidence that there is neurogenesis (birth of new neurons) in the hippocampus throughout life, suggesting that new neurons may contribute to the optimal functioning of the human brain.


Move for the sake of your brain!

Need more motivation?  In a recent study, 454 older adults who attended physical exams as well as annual cognition tests for 20 years and who agreed to donate their brains for research after they died were given accelerometers (a device that measures vibration or the acceleration of a structure's movement) to track their movements and physical activity 24 hours a day.

Those who were more active performed better on tests of memory and thinking, and each standard deviation increase in physical activity was associated with up to a 31% lower risk of dementia, according to the researchers.

The association between physical activity and cognitive function remained constant even after the study authors assessed participants' brain pathology and whether or not they suffered from dementia.


How does physical exercise specifically affect your brain?

Physical exercise would directly increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex and improve the integrity of white matter, nerve fibres that connect areas of the brain's nerve cells rich in grey matter.  It also promotes neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to form new neural connections and adaptations throughout life.

According to Aaron Bonner Jackson, a neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, USA, one of the key places where neuroplasticity occurs is in the brain's hippocampus, which is an important area of the brain for maintaining memory quality.

What is especially encouraging is that you don't have to do exaggerated sports practices or meet certain requirements to get these benefits for the brain. (2)


Benefits of Physical Activity for the Brain

Science continues to study activities such as running which provides what they call "runner's high" or that zen-like state produced by endorphins that allows the runner to keep going even when exhausted. Or the practice of yoga that allows you to enter a state of meditative relaxation while practising, as they have profound effects on the brain.


  1. How Exercise can Increase Memory

The part of the brain that is strongly activated by aerobic exercise (brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling) is called the hippocampus.  Because the hippocampus is at the core of the learning and memory systems in the brain, this finding would partly explain the increased effects on memory from trained fitness.


  1. It Would Help Maintain Focus and Attention Span When Performing a Task

A randomised study in the United States looked at the effects of daily physical education classes throughout the school year.  Students not only became fitter, but also improved their multivalent skills, ignored distractions, and improved their ability to process complex information.


  1. Exercise May Help the Mental Processes that Control Stress and Mood

You may have heard of or experienced the "runner's high", that feeling of happiness and clarity that follows exercise.  Well, it's real and has been observed in mice with evidence indicating a pleasurable and sedative stimulation of the endocannabinoid system (also known as the psychoactive cannabis receptor).

More recently, science is corroborating the "relaxation response" from yoga practice.  A study in 2010 put participants to practice yoga and meditation daily for 8 weeks.  The result concluded "... participants reported a significant reduction in perceived stress.  Reductions in perceived stress correlated positively with a decrease in the right basolateral grey matter density of the amygdala."

In another study, exercise was shown to be an alternative for overcoming depression.  Both aerobic and strength exercise were found to be "moderately effective" in treating symptoms of depression.  Of particular interest, the researchers noted that exercise appeared to be as effective as antidepressant drugs and psychological treatments.


  1. Physical Activity Stimulates your Creativity

Creative people throughout the ages (Aristotle, Beethoven, Kierkegaard and many more) have claimed that walking promotes their creative process; and lately, psychologists have provided empirical support for these claims. An article published in 2014 entitled "Give your ideas legs: the positive effect of walking while thinking creatively" showed that walking, whether on a treadmill or on the Stanford University campus (where the study took place), stimulated creative thinking.  Interestingly, it did not help convergent thinking (the kind that filters ideas to identify which ones have real value) whose ability is used to come up with the "right" answer to standard questions that do not require much creativity.


  1. Exercise Improves Blood Circulation Also in your Brain

Because exercise increases heart rate, this process allows more oxygen and glucose to be delivered to the brain, which in turn stimulates neuronal synapses (structures that allow one neuron to transmit an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron) by preserving the number of acetylcholine receptors found at the junction of muscle and nerve.  This is reflected in the fact that active people have more receptors in their brains than inactive people.


  1. Exercise Stimulates the Production of More Brain Cells

Until 1999 it was thought that the brain we were born with, was complete and could not produce new cells, but a study at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, USA, showed through an experiment with mice that physical activity produces chemical changes in the brain that encourage better learning; and associated work suggests that similar mechanisms must operate in humans as well.

Although it is not yet understood how, what is clear is that exercise helps "build brains".  The theory behind this is that exercise stimulates the production of a brain protein known as Noggin and that this protein initiates the production of neurogenesis and stem cells.


  1. Analgesia or Increased Pain Threshold

This effect is caused by the release of b-endorphins, which inhibit the nerve fibres that transmit pain, which is why this hormone has been called the "happiness hormone" or "natural painkiller".

In 2017 CNN published an article on the benefits of exercise for the brain.  Among other things, it mentions that there are about 86 billion neurons in our heads, all designed to give instructions to the rest of the body with the help of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters that regulate EVERYTHING in the body from mood, to sleep, to memory, to hunger.

Studies show that having low levels of these neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate and gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), leads to depression.  But, according to the Journal of Neuroscience, moderate exercise can naturally increase these levels, which can result in progressive resilience and an increased ability to cope with mental challenges.  This is all connected to the concept defined as "mental fitness".


The 5 Physical Activities I Recommend for a Healthy Brain and Body

  1. Aerobic Exercise

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming, per week, keeping in mind that ANY physical activity benefits your brain.

The workouts don't even have to be extreme to get that benefit.  Walking for 30-45 minutes, three times a week, will ward off cognitive wear and tear and slow the onset of dementia. Take heart!

And if walking is not your thing, you can try weight training twice a week as this activity has a significant neurological impact (1).  Or how about a bit of dancing? Studies show that dance should be restorative.  Just one hour of dance once a week for six months increased the cognitive performance of older adults, as well as their posture and sensorimotor function.


  1. Strength Training or Weight Bearing Exercises

More and more experiments are showing that strength exercises stimulate the functioning of the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning in our brain.

In addition, lifting weights involves concentrating on a specific movement, which in turn stimulates neural circuits in the brain.

According to Dr Damian M. Bailey, professor of physiology and biochemistry at the University of South Wales, UK, and advisor to the European Space Agency, squats specifically are effective in strengthening the brain, as they "intermittently challenge the brain with an increase in blood flow and a decrease in blood flow".

"This back and forth from high flow to low flow challenges the inner lining of the arteries that supply blood to the brain," he explained on BBC 4's Just One Thing podcast. "We think this is good because it grows the good chemicals that the brain needs to be smarter."

Bailey points out that doing three to five minutes of squats just three times a week is better for the brain than steady-state exercise such as running.


  1. Yoga

An article in the National Library of Medicine reports that yoga practice can positively influence brain health. Studies suggest that yoga practice may have an effect on the functional connectivity of the DMN, the activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while performing cognitive tasks, and the structure of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, all regions that show significant age-related changes.

The studies mentioned in this article used Hatha yoga, a form of yoga that emphasises the connection between conscious breathing and movement, as well as meditation.

Yoga practitioners showed a greater volume of grey matter in the brain - which has been linked to better mental function, especially during ageing - and greater cortical thickness, another advantage in terms of brain structure as it relates to greater intelligence.

Therefore, behavioural interventions such as yoga may hold promise for mitigating age-related neurodegenerative decline.


  1. Wim Hof method air retention exercises

The Wim Hof method is actually a type of meditation. In general, it has been found that meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

A small 2018 study interviewed 16 people about their experiences with the method. These people reported subjective benefits that I personally share such as:

- Improved mood

- Reduced anxiety

- Generalised sense of well-being

- Deeper connection with oneself

- Strengthened immune system

- Less tension and better physical stress management


The basis of the Wim Hof method is his breathing technique. According to Hof, beginners should start as follows:

- Find a comfortable posture.

- Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your belly.

- Exhale and immediately inhale again.

- Take 30 to 40 breaths of this type.

- Exhale and hold until you feel the urge to breathe again.

- Inhale deeply and hold your breath for 15 seconds.

- Repeat 4-5 rounds.

Hof says people should do this practice daily.

As a person gets used to the method, their initial 30-40 breaths should be brought closer together, so that they are hyperventilating while still breathing as deeply as possible.


Hof warns that users may feel dizzy, tingly, or lightheaded when hyperventilating.

Hyperventilation poses some health risks such as decreasing blood flow to the brain, thereby depriving it of oxygen causing fainting due to lack of blood flow to the brain having a detrimental effect on the brain in people with a traumatic brain injury.

It is important to note that this method is not safe to perform in water or while driving or in any context where loss of consciousness could be dangerous. This includes cold showers when a person is alone or unaccustomed as they may fall.


  1. Cold showers accompanying Wim Hof's breathing method

Intermediate practitioners of the Wim Hof breathing method apply it at a pace in which they feel comfortable while taking cold showers.

As the person becomes more comfortable with the method, they may take ice baths while doing the breathing exercises. Hof argues that a series of specific, teachable advanced techniques can help a person tolerate extremely cold temperatures or improve their athletic performance.

Wim Hof recommends starting by taking your normal shower and then bathing for 5 seconds with the cold water and doing 5-second increments each day or whenever you feel ready.

According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, "exposure to cold triggers a significant release of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) in the brain and body. These neurochemicals make us feel alert and can make us feel agitated and as if we need to move or vocalise during cold exposure. Cold causes their levels to remain elevated for some time and their continuing effect after exposure is to increase your energy level and concentration, which can be applied to other mental and/or physical activities.

Likewise, although not for all types of stress, exposure to cold causes a prolonged release of dopamine. Dopamine is a potent molecule capable of elevating mood, improving concentration, attention, goal-directed behaviour, etc.".


BONUS: 5 Foods that Help Maintain Cognitive Function

Leafy greens: spinach, kale, broccoli, and chard are rich in nutrients such as vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta-carotene, among others.  Research suggests that these plant-based foods slow cognitive decline.

Green tea and coffee: Both coffee and tea provide more than short-term mental stimulation.  In a recent study, participants with higher caffeine intake performed better on mental function assessments.

Fish oil: fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are healthy polyunsaturated fats that have been linked to reduced levels of beta-amyloid (a protein that forms harmful clots in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease).

Red berries: red berries contain flavonoids which are plant pigments that give red berries their red, purple, and dark bluish colours which, according to science, help improve memory.

Walnuts: Walnuts in general are an ideal source of protein and healthy fats; walnuts specifically are said to improve memory function.


As you can see, cognitive benefits are almost as impressive as the physical benefits of exercise on the body.  This reminds us that our bodies and our brains do not function in isolation from each other.  What you do with your body, what you nourish it with, can benefit or harm your mental faculties.

Being sedentary all day, every day is dangerous to your physical health and your mental health, so don't wait! Find an activity and do it, or just go for a walk. 


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