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Wrap Your Head Around Brain Fitness

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Wrap Your Head Around Brain Fitness

While aging is inevitable, healthy aging is well within our control. The good news is regardless of age, our brain has the ability to improve its neural networks and cognitive function, also known as neuroplasticity. Cooper Fitness Center Director of Personal Training Education Carla Sottovia, PhD, explains how the same exercise that is good for your heart is also good for your head!

Fit from the inside-out
We know exercise benefits our overall health in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as reducing inflammation and symptoms of depression by flooding the brain with endorphins. However, exercise has also been shown to play a major role in enhancing brain health.

Did you know certain types of exercise can actually physically alter the structure of the gray and white matter in the brain? “The gray matter of the brain contains the neurons, or nerve cells, responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech and decision making,” explains Sottovia. “The white matter is made of the cell axons or extensions that carry signals from one area of the brain to another. Exercise can help produce new neurons, new connections between neurons and new blood vessels.”

Other studies have shown exercise increases a protein in the brain called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF assists with neurogenesis or the production of nerve tissue growth. It also influences the brains awareness of where you are in space and is responsible for verbal memory. Specific types of exercise that improves brain health include:

  • Aerobic activity
    Aerobic exercise improves gray matter specifically in the areas of the brain where dementia and mild cognitive impairments may occur such as the hippocampus. Even just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve the production of BDNF. Walking six to nine miles per week has been shown to increase gray matter two of the four regions of the brain—the frontal (responsible for retaining information) and temporal (responsible for memory). Running also increases new neural connectivity in endurance runners as young as 18-25 years old. This increased connectivity takes place in the same area of the brain where major declines are seen with aging, such as memory. The earlier in life you get active, the more likely you are to enhance and protect the longevity of your brain’s health.
  • Resistance training
    Regular resistance training can significantly improve the brain’s ability to form new brain nerves (neurogenesis) and new blood cells (angiogenesis) through the increase of a hormone called immunoglobulin factor 1.
  • Mind-body exercise
    Activities that keep the brain engaged, require coordination and rhythm or accomplish a movement task also improve cognitive function. For instance, tai chi can decrease the risk of developing dementia by 60% and juggling has been shown to improve gray matter, enhancing visual and motor information. Other mind-body activities include dancing, yoga and stretching.

Results that speak for themselves
“After beginning to follow an exercise program, I’ve had clients report feeling more alert, having a more clear memory, and having more stamina that enables them to do other activities that otherwise were too challenging,” says Sottovia. “As their trainer, I can see improvement in their overall ability to perform different movement patterns and in their coordination.”

Healthy lifestyle’s role in brain fitness
To optimize your brain’s fitness level, Sottovia also suggests participating in activities that engage and challenge your mind. Whether it’s learning a new language, joining a social group, listening to an educational podcast or participating in a book club, the options are endless!

While exercise is a key component to a healthy brain, it is important to not neglect the other aspects of an overall healthy lifestyle including:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Make healthy food choices most of the time.
  • Take the right supplements for you. 
  • Manage your stress appropriately.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
  • Take time to be social with friends and family.   

At the end of the day, aging does not equate to imminent cognitive decline. In general, signs of dementia could start as early as your 50s. It is all heavily dependent on the type of lifestyle you choose to live. Your health is your responsibility and there is no drug or cure that can replicate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, especially when it comes to brain health. The more you move, the sharper you’ll be!

For more information about Cooper Fitness Center or about Move.Laugh.Connect. classes, visit or call 972.233.4832.