According to a 2016 study published in Neurology, older folks who didn’t exercise or only lightly exercised experienced cognitive decline at a much faster rate. Their cognitive abilities were effectively ten years older than those who exercised moderately or intensively.1
Does this mean you need to start doing one of those insane workouts we see on TV to protect your brain? Not at all.
I’ve pulled together ten of the highest leverage exercises, lifestyle changes and activities that can turn your cognitive clock back ten years or – to try on another metaphor – subtract a hundred thousand miles off your brain’s “odometer” — no matter what your previous exercise habits have been.
When I say “highest leverage” I mean they give you highest return for the effort you put in.
And by the way, only the first four are exercise-related.
Start with a couple that look approachable, and gradually add more to your routine as you feel comfortable. Taking just one of these steps can change your life.
Exercising for Ultimate Brain Health
1. Do a 5-minute warm-up first.
Here’s a “triple threat” warm-up: I recommend doing a few basic yoga flows before you exercise to get your whole body warm.
A flow is something you can do “cold,” without pulling muscles or causing injury—and you can adapt it to your level of fitness.
Plus, you get the mind and hormonal benefits of doing five minutes of meditation, too. One study showed that 50-year-old meditators had the gray matter of a 25-year-old.2
If you don’t know a thing about yoga, classes are just about ubiquitous these days. All you’re trying to do is learn four or five simple, basic yoga postures. A couple of hours of instruction should be enough to get you going, then you can do them at home.
Or maybe you’ll have so much fun, you’ll want to continue with the class!
As with almost everything, you can run into an instructor who wants to push you too hard or classmates who want to turn it into a competition. Don’t let yourself get rolled. Get what you need from the instructor, or bail out and find someone more congenial.
2. Bodyweight squats and lunges.
Interestingly enough, leg strength is one of the most telling factors in cognitive health, especially in women. Twin studies have demonstrated that leg strength is significantly related to gray matter volume and future cognitive change.3
And you don’t need fancy gym equipment to do it — sets of “air” squats and bodyweight lunges can kick your quad and hamstring strength up a notch; besides that, this step and step 3 are great for cardio health.
See instructional videos here:
3. Walking, bike-riding, jogging.
A brisk walk, jog, or bike ride is one of the best things you can do. Also consider taking a dance class – square dance, ballroom, whatever strikes your fancy. One 65-year-old friend of mine took hip-hop classes.
Not only will this help develop leg strength, but animal studies showed that the longer a rat ran at a moderate pace, the more neurogenesis (generation of new brain cells) it experienced, compared to high intensity intervals and weight lifting.4
4. Weight training.
Not just for bodybuilders anymore, weight training — especially in the legs — is a great way to build muscle, stability, and endurance.
Hamstring curls, extensions, and leg press are great for beginners — and these exercises can make an immediate difference in your brain activity. This will probably involve joining a health club, and the social aspect of that is also good for brain health.
A study published in Acta Psychologica showed those who performed leg extensions at their maximum effort increased their levels of norepinephrine (an important neurotransmitter) and had ten percent better short-term memory recall than did passive participants.5
Plus, another study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that women who weight-trained just twice per week for a year showed significantly less brain shrinkage and slower growth of age-related white matter brain lesions than did women who lifted once per week or who only focused on balance and stability exercises.6
And ladies, don’t be afraid of increasing your weights as you get stronger — you won’t turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Eat Healthy for a Sharp Mind
5. Healthy eating patterns.
Let’s avoid the word “diet” here and talk about what you should aim for – healthy habits you can do every day for the rest of your life, NOT temporary fixes that you practice for a while before returning to your old, bad habits.
A healthy eating pattern avoids inflammatory foods — especially processed and high-glycemic foods. The latter include not only sugar but also rice, potatoes and all wheat products. In general, you can eat just about as much protein and fat as you want, and you should eat as few carbs as you can. That’s oversimplying, but that’s the basic principle.
Make sure you’re getting plenty of lean protein and healthy fats (nuts, coconut oil, avocado) and organic produce. Take antioxidant supplements.
Three supplements I consider essential are krill oil (omega 3s), turmeric, and a multivitamin / mineral.
6. Challenge your mind often.
Crossword puzzles and word games are great, but try more complex challenges as well. Change your routine. Take a different path on your walk. Do something backwards, like repeating the alphabet or counting backwards from 100 by 7s. It’s tricky, but a low effort way to put your brain to work.
Use your left hand to do things you’d normally do with your right (or vice versa, if you’re naturally left-handed). It makes you think and gets a conversation going between your brain, your body, and the rest of the world.
7. Learn a new hobby, craft or skill.
Pick something you’ve always wanted to learn and stick with it. Playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language or cooking a new recipe creates new pathways and connections in the brain.7
Consider a hobby like quilting, painting, drawing, even playing bridge or poker. You don’t have to be good at it. Do it for fun.
Turn off the TV and read a book.
8. Watch your alcohol intake.
If you drink, make sure you’re not overindulging on a regular basis. Studies show 1.3 ounces of alcohol is the line between healthy and overindulging. That refers to the alcohol content of your drink, not to the total volume of the drink.8
If you don’t get enough sleep, your hippocampus begins to work overtime… making mistakes, encoding new information improperly, and causing your emotions to go out of whack.
Consistent poor quality sleep – often caused by sleep apnea – is now known to be one of the main causes of dementia. If you don’t sleep well, find out if there’s a medical problem and if there is, get it fixed.
For garden variety sleep problems, exercise can help you sleep better, along with avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol before bed.9
Make sure you sleep in a totally darkened room – no glowing red or green lights from electronic devices. If you have to wear an eye mask to get rid of the light, do it.
10. Stay social.
Make new friends, go new places and try new things. There’s no reason that getting older should keep you from the many pleasures this world has to offer.10
The number of social contacts a person has is one of the most powerful predictors of whether he or she will get dementia. If you don’t currently have a lot of friends or nearby family, then join clubs, become active in a church, volunteer for a charity, take a class.
You’ll meet lots of wonderful new friends and the mental stimulation is worth more than all the “memory drugs” in the world. (Admittedly, that’s not setting the bar very high since the pharmaceutical memory drugs like Namenda and Aricept are nearly useless.)
Now more than ever, you have the power to take control of your brain health.
Whether it’s simply getting up and moving, learning to weight-train, or taking an afternoon nap, these high-leverage activities can make a huge difference on the “age” of your brain.
- Exercise may slow brain aging by 10 years for older people
- Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain
- Kicking back cognitive ageing: leg power predicts cognitive ageing after 10 years in older female twins
- Which type of exercise is best for the brain?
- What kinds of exercise can boost long-term memory?
- Resistance Training and White Matter Lesion Progression in Older Women: Exploratory Analysis of a 12-Month Randomized Controlled Trial.
- 10 brain exercises that boost memory
- The truth about alcohol and brain health
- Aging and Sleep—Coping
- Engage Your Brain
10 Simple Ways to Make Your Brain 10 Years Younger