Breaking a sweat on a regular basis can get you into amazing shape, but research shows it can help you get smarter too. Learn to harness the total-body benefits of cardio workouts.
The Brain-Boosting Benefits of Cardio Exercises
You know that logging miles on the treadmill can give you a trim body, but adding more cardio to your life will also ratchet up your smarts, boost your productivity, rev your energy, and turn you into an unstoppable success machine. Even one 30-minute cardio session pumps extra blood to your brain, delivering the oxygen and nutrients it needs to perform at max efficiency. Cardio also floods the brain with chemicals that enhance functions such as memory, problem solving, and decision making. And new research has found that this kind of exercise may even cause permanent structural changes to the brain itself.
“Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory,” says Thomas Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and memory researcher. “You’re working out your brain at the same time as your heart.”
And the mental mojo you get from cardio isn’t limited to making you smarter. It also has the power to lower your stress levels and shake you out of a funk. It’s no coincidence that so many high-achieving women—from Madonna to Condoleezza Rice—share the cardio habit. Here’s how it works.
Your Brain on Cardio
Anyone who has ever tackled a StairMaster has a pretty good idea of what happens to your body when you break a sweat. But here’s what’s going on in your head at the same time: All that extra blood bathes your brain cells in oxygen and glucose, which they need to function. The more they get, the better they perform.
Every muscle you move also sends hormones rushing to your brain. There, they mix with a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which plays a role in brain cell growth, mood regulation, and learning. “BDNF is like fertilizer for the brain,” says John J. Ratey, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Without it, our brains can’t take in new information or make new cells.”
Exercise has another vital role: It signals the release of several key hormones, including serotonin, the famed mood booster; dopamine, which affects learning and attention; and norepinephrine, which influences attention, perception, motivation, and arousal. This exercise-induced chemical cocktail has a powerful impact. “By elevating neurotransmitters in the brain, it helps us focus, feel better, and release tension,” Ratey says.
Experienced regularly, all that rushing of blood and hormones primes your brain to grow. In one study, researchers scanned the brains of people who exercised for one hour per day, three days a week, for a duration of six months. They discovered an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory and learning. Working out literally bulked up the study participants’ brains, allowing them to perform better at tasks that require concentration and recall—two talents that come in handy if, say, you do your own taxes or tend to forget passwords. “Exercise improves attention, memory, accuracy, and how quickly you process information, all of which helps you make smarter decisions,” says Charles H. Hillman, Ph.D., an associate professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Capitalise on Cardio
Will any old way of raising your heartbeat also raise your success meter? Moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise—such as pedaling a bike, walking briskly, or anything where you’re breaking a sweat but can still carry on a conversation—shows promise in lab studies.
It takes at least 30 minutes of cardio three times a week to yield results, says Arthur F. Kramer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, based on his studies on cognition and exercise. And if you can build up to daily cardio sessions, recent studies show that you may boost BDNF in your brain more rapidly than if you work out every other day. But it still might take a while to build the kind of brainpower that buffers you against stress.
After a few months of a regular cardio habit, gradually increase the intensity of your workouts to boost your mental returns. “Add a few vigorous efforts like running or interval training to your weekly program,” Ratey says. Or try alternating between your usual routine and some workouts that are mentally challenging, such as dancing or tennis, a few times a week. Activities like these require coordination, which engages several areas of the brain at once—it’s the mental equivalent of doing a pushup to work your entire upper body versus a biceps curl that targets only one muscle.
And if you happen to take a break from regular exercise, even for up to two weeks, no worries. Your brain has a molecular memory, which helps it churn out high levels of BDNF after just two days of hitting the elliptical again.
If a few hours a week on the treadmill ultimately helps you think quicker, make better decisions, and climb the ladder at work, your sweat will have literally paid off.
Text extracts from a Women’s Health article.