Want an all-natural way to lift your mood, improve your memory, and protect your brain against age-related cognitive decline?
A wealth of recent research, including a new study published this month, suggests that any type of exercise that raises your heart rate and gets you moving and sweating for a sustained period – known as aerobic exercise – has a significant, beneficial effect on the brain.
“Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” says an article in a Harvard Medical School blog.
Most research suggests that the best type of aerobic exercise for your mind is anything you can do regularly and consistently for 30-45 minutes at a time. But the latest study found that doing any kind of workout – whether for five minutes or 45 – can have beneficial effects on mental health.
The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, is the largest long-term study of its kind to look at the link between exercise and mental health, with a special focus on depression.
The researchers studied nearly 34,000 Norwegian adults over 11 years and had them report how often they exercised each week, how intense it was, and how depressed or anxious they felt.
The results suggested that as little as one hour of exercise each week helped shield people against depressive episodes. Notably, that exercise did not need to be aerobic – even participants who got moving without becoming breathless (perhaps with an activity like a long, moderately paced walk) were significantly less likely to report symptoms of depression compared with those who did no exercise.
Plenty of other research has found a powerful connection between mental and physical fitness across varying levels of intensity. Some benefits, like a lift in mood, can emerge as soon as a few minutes into a sweaty endeavor, while others, like improved memory, might take several weeks to crop up.
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A pilot study in people with severe depression, for example, found that just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 consecutive days was “sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression.” Aerobic workouts appear to help reduce levels of the body’s natural stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, a recent study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found.
In older people, the best way to protect against age-related brain decline seems to be aerobic workouts. A study published in May found that in adults ages 60 to 88, walking for 30 minutes four days a week for 12 weeks appeared to strengthen connectivity in a region of the brain where weakened connections have been linked with memory loss. And a study in older women who displayed symptoms of dementia found that sweaty, heart-pumping exercise was linked with an increase in the size of the hippocampus, a brain area involved in learning and memory.
Several studies even suggest that aerobic workouts provide the best protection against other types of cognitive decline, too. A study involving hundreds of breast cancer survivors concluded that such exercise seemed to reduce the symptoms of “chemo brain,” a commonly reported side effect of cancer treatment that involves memory loss and difficulty focusing.
“The message for cancer patients and survivors is, get active!” Diane Ehlers, the lead author of that study who’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a statement.
The best overall health results – mental and physical – for people over 50 appear to come from a combination of aerobic workouts and resistance training (strengthening work like lifting weights or doing squats). That type of workout plan could be anything from high-intensity interval training, like the seven-minute workout, to dynamic-flow yoga, which intersperses strength-building poses with heart-pumping dancelike moves.
Researchers still aren’t sure why exercise appears to provide so many benefits to our brain and body. One factor could be increased blood flow, since aerobic work pumps fresh oxygen to the brain.
Regardless of the cause, Joe Northey, an exercise scientist at the University of Canberra, said his research suggested that anyone in good health over age 50 should do 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic exercise “on as many days of the week as feasible.”
That’s probably good advice for all ages.