I got this video in my twitter feed from www.health.harvard.edu . Harvard is a famous American college and its faculty are much esteemed. In this short video, professor of neurology at Harvard medical school, Alvaro Pascual Leone, outlines the connection between exercise and brain health.
What’s really amazing about this video is the surprising link between body and mind.
We all know the adage “a healthy body a healthy mind”, but I never thought about it in such a concrete way.
If you watch this video, you will receive a quick yet substantial outline as to the effect of physical exercise on brain function, but actually the information is flowing so fast that most of it goes over our head. So I listened to the video a couple of times and took down some summary notes, which I will share with you here. It really is quite amazing when you think about it, take a look:
Benefits of Exercise for Physical Health
1). Exercise improves memory
2). Exercise improves problem solving
3). Exercise reduces the probability of developing dementia
How Exercise Simulates the Brain
Physical exercise increases blood flow throughout the body, thus improving heart function, blood pressure levels and the efficiency of muscles. In particular, from a brain perspective, the improved blood flow throughout the entire body, increases blood flow to the brain and of course it also means that more glucose goes to the brain.
The good doctor didn’t outline the role of glucose in brain health in this video, but to summarise; when we eat carbohydrates, some of the carbohydrates break down into glucose which feeds the Brian. On average most people burn up approximately 25% of their carbohydrates in order to feed the brain!
Our brain lives on sugar!
Also, for those of us who eat a high protein low (or zero) carb diet, the body goes through a process known as glycogenesis, in order to convert protein into sugar. It’s a slow and inefficient process, and its relative ineffectiveness can often explain the fuzzy headed feelings which people, who are on a low carb diet, often complain about!
So more blood and sugar to the brain results in improved brain function. It’s logical when you think about it. Increased blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients and also more efficient scavenging of cellular waste, while increased glucose supply, results in more fuel in the tank, as it where, for higher level brain function!
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
Dr Pascual Leone outlines the role of the forebrain (cerebrum) in higher level thinking and decision making, noting that exercise thickens this part of the brain. So when we are building our muscles in the gym, we are also building our brains! Professor Pascal Leone goes on to note that physical exercise, actually results in new cognitive brain cells and increased plasticity (adaptability) of brain function!
Regarding brain plasticity, Dr. Pascual does not go into detail, but our brains are highly adaptable and will developed in new and interesting directions, given half a chance. So when we exercise, our brain actually becomes more adaptable!
He goes on to note how exercise stimulates the amygdala which reduces hunger pangs, thus supporting dieting and it stimulates the hippocampus, which improves memory power!
What sort of Exercise is good for brain health?
Professor Pascual Leone goes on to note that the exercise type does not matter, so long as you push yourself, opting that the brain complains of discomfort long before actual physical failure has set in. So in other words, we tend to feel discomfort when exercising, but this is a signal from our brain. It’s actually quite a rare thing to fatigue our physical bodies. So when we jog, for the first few times, we feel a pain in our side and discomfort with our breathing, but if we keep on jogging, this discomfort fades away. This doesn’t mean that we should keep on pushing ourselves until we collapse, but we have to push until we feel a little discomfort. We have to go beyond regular cardiovascular exercise levels, and this is a key point.
A lot of people go to the gym and spend 40 minutes on the treadmill, using the same low intensity level, every time they come, while watching CNN on the gym TV sets, or listening to their iPods, while staring into space. Either way they’re only going through the motions, and while it is fair to say that they have exercised and are receiving some cardiovascular benefits, this level of activity is not enough to stimulate the brain. The reason for this is simple enough. Exercise which really stimulates the blood flow will have a deep and abiding effect on all organs of the body including the brain!
If you want to be really physical healthy, then stimulate the body via blood flow. Blood brings in oxygen and nutrients into the cells, while removing toxins. Been physically active is the single best thing, which anyone can do for health and even great exercise systems, such as Hatha Yoga and Tai Chi are pretty well useless, if the person only attends yoga class, but spends the other 23 hours a day sitting at a desk or on a coach. We are physical beings and we have to move our bodies, in order to be healthy. Been active, simulates blood flow and blood flow stimulates health!
The type of exercise doesn’t really matter. It can be cardiovascular trading; it can be weight training; it can be martial arts or sports such as football etc. The important thing is that it should be fairly strenuous. Think in terms of how you might feel after a good badminton or tennis match; or after a few fast laps of the pool or a 2 mile jog. You shouldn’t kill yourself, but a feeling of definite exertion should be there.
Ways and Means
Another nice suggestion by Dr Pascual Leon, is to focus only on short term goals, such as a 3 week period. He suggests training with a training partner 4 times a week for 3 weeks.
Of course you don’t have to follow his advice to a tee, but the good thing about it is focusing on short term goals. Focus on going to the gym or doing some sort of exercise for 3 weeks, it’s a doable goal. Then focus on the next 3 weeks and so on, that way it never seems tedious.
Regarding exercise frequency he suggests 4 days a week. Personally I would suggest doing some physical activity 7 days a week and doing tenuous activity at least 3 times a week. If you have a partner then fine, otherwise just be brave and do it yourself. I train on my own most of the time, it takes will power, but it can be done!
Final Thoughts on Exercise and Brain Function
The take away from this video is that physical exercise has an enormous effect on brain health, and this really surprised me. I knew that exercise helps, but I didn’t realise that it help to such a great degree!
Secondly when thinking about it, it actually makes sense. After all our head is attached to our bodies, so obviously physical exercise will increase blood flow everywhere!
We tend to think in terms of our brain as been something separate from our physical body, but in reality there is no division between body, mind and spirit. Because of the requirement of our academic curriculums, we have divided subject matters in such a way that it gives the appearance of separateness, but really this is just academic convenience. We are our bodies and yet we are our minds and our spirits. Physical exercise is a must for anyone, who wants to maintain good brain function and even for those who have high level spiritual aspirations; they also need to support their minds via physical exercise.
If you want a healthy mind and spirit, it is important to try to have a healthy body, or at least a healthier body. As obviously many of us suffer from some degree of ill health and this is not always curable, but it is always treatable. Dr Pascual Leone notes that physical exercise will improve the efficiency of normal brain function, but also he goes on to say that for people, who are suffering from brain conditions, such as dementia, that they will benefit from physical exercise.
So even if you are ill or have some kind of physical impairment, it is still a good idea to do some sort of exercise, as it will stimulate the body and as the body houses the mind and the spirit, it will in turn improve one’s mood, mental functioning and even ones connectedness with God, as a certain level of energy, is required to engage with these higher level aspirations.
Finally, we shouldn’t get too bogged down in the type of exercises which we follow. Ideally, for a healthy person, we should engage in strenuous exercise, in order to simulate blood flow and improve mental functioning. But even for the elderly, the sick and the physically challenged, they can do something, but that something will be appropriate as according to their physical limitations. It’s pointless, for example, telling a person who can hardly walk a hundred years in one hour, to go for a jog, but we get them to go for a walk around the block every day!
So just remember that physical exercise stimulates mental function as well, and try to make a point of moving your body every day. I feel it’s that simple. We tend to get bogged down in details, but in a nutshell we all need to get our bodies moving, as best we can and in a manner which does not drain us, so as to stimulate the body-mind-spirit connection!